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Flyfishing in Saltwaters Magazine, Sept/Oct 2005




By Captain John McMurray


The Army Corps of Engineers is one of the largest government agencies in the US, dwarfing behemoths such as the departments of Labor, Education, and Energy.  While a third of the bureaucracy work on military programs the rest focus on civil works which unsuccessfully seek to control forces of nature.  Arrogantly, the Corps has moved forward with ditching, draining, straightening and damming efforts that have been destructive to fish and fish habit in almost every state.  In addition to being one of the largest bureaucracies, they are also one of most effective at generating congressionally supported pork-barrel projects to keep it busy.  That’s why it didn’t surprise me when I heard about the ill-conceived plan to “re-nourish” (a fancy word for dredge and fill) my home-town beach in Long Beach, New York.  If it goes though, I can kiss the fishing here goodbye.  Unfortunately, this egregious project is only the tip of the iceberg.  Because of the hysteria brought on by prior years’ hurricane seasons, the array of large-scale beach dredge-and-fill projects currently being considered constitute a real and significant threat to “Essential Fish Habitat” and near-shore fishing opportunities in every coastal state.


The problem:


Most estimates indicate that approximately 80% of the U.S. shoreline is eroding.  While this fact is somewhat disturbing, it shouldn’t be.  Since the beginning, beaches have been changing their location but retaining their general shape. The conflict arises when shoreline retreat meets human obstacles, such as houses, highways, and seawalls.  Dr. Orrin Pilkey, renowned Duke University professor and author of The Corps and The Shore said it best, “Erosion isn’t a problem for beaches, just for buildings.” These structures block the retreat causing the sandy area to narrow which leads to a reduction in sand supply to adjacent beaches.  Beaches get narrower and can eventually wash away, eliminating the buffer between the open-ocean and coastal properties.


Environmental Damage:


The idea behind the Corps’ dredge-and-fill solution to this problem is to strip-mine sand in offshore locations with industrial dredges and dump it on what they determined to be eroding beaches. While this may sound harmless, these projects inevitably destroy important marine habitats in off-shore grounds, and then further wreak havoc on the ecosystem when dumping sand on beaches. Almost all seafloor-dwelling marine life occurs in that 6-inch margin of surface.  Offloading fill on beaches smothers tidal wildlife.  Hundreds of species of crustaceans, mollusks, and annelids that form the prey base for important sportfish are killed or have to move to another location. 


The filling eventually covers important near-shore reefs that hold important juvenile as well as adult populations of sportfish and the bait they depend on. There have been some mitigation efforts with artificial reefs, but they don’t work in the way natural reefs do as they don’t generate same food sources, plus they are placed in water too deep to provide the shallow structure required for juvenile fishes.  After decades of negligent dredge and fill projects, the law now requires buffer areas between the dredge sites and reefs, which are federally designated as Essential Fish Habitat and/or Habitat Areas of Particular Concern. But, there are no consistent standards, and as sand supplies shrink, regulators will likely face pressure to decrease buffer distances.  Regardless, the current buffer requirement isn’t sufficient because the sediments migrate anyway, eventually burying these reefs.


In many instances the Corps doesn’t dump beach quality sand back onto the beach because this type of sentiment is in short supply.  Beach invertebrate expert and professor of the University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences Dr. Pete Peterson notes: “It’s like going out into your backyard and loading five feet of dirt onto the grass.  Not much is going to survive.  The recovery you get will depend on whether you put the same sort of dirt on your lawn.”  The particles used are either too big or small in most cases.  In some instances, the Corps has used small particles geologists would call silts and clays or what we would call mud.  Not only does it erode easily and quickly, but it becomes suspended creating a situation where some organisms suffocate the turbid water.   Of course, the murky water rules out any sight-fishing opportunities, but even worse it inhibits feeding as many fish are visual feeders, including red drum, snook, jacks, permit, bluefish, mackerel, stripers, bonito, and flounders.  Furthermore, many of the larval and bait fishes are filter feeders and they end up being forced to filter out mud along with the plankton they are targeting which most likely kills a lot of them.  Unfortunately, the murky water exists not just in the site where the beach fill takes place.  The turbidity extends down the beach for miles, disturbing habitats well beyond the site zone. 


The small particle fill that remains on the bottom becomes compacted, creating a situation where it is very difficult for digging beach organisms like mole crabs and worms to burrow.  These animals simply get washed off the face of the beach. Dozens of studies have shown significant impacts to beach invertebrate populations. 


When the corps uses large particles the result is just as horrific.  Beach organisms simply get buried.  Even if the Corps manages to find similar sized sand the result is still unsatisfactory.  Dr. Hal Wanless, Chairman of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School notes, “The sediments mined offshore either ‘grew’ there or migrated there because they’re too fine to stay on the beach. Even when the grains are roughly the same size as the polished quartz beach sediments, they won’t behave the same in the surf zone.”  


Because the Corps very rarely documents the environmental impacts of these projects, the cumulative effects on the coastal resources are not well documented.  Experts estimate that Corps beach projects have created scores of large dredge craters among mid-shelf reef habitat and buried thousands of acres of near-shore reefs and sea-grass beds, not to mention altered migration patterns of most beach accessible sportfish.  Add to this the possible exacerbation of transport and/or biological uptake of toxicants and other pollutants released at either dredge or fill sites and one begins to get a picture of how bad these projects really are for the ocean environment and the fishing.   


The near-shore environment effected by these projects is so important to so many juvenile gamefish and forage species that cumulatively the habitat loss and diminishment of forage effect fishing not just off the beach, but everywhere else you can expect to find your favorite sportfish.


The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) mandates detailed assessments for all federal projects that can have significant environmental impacts. Unfortunately, NEPA gives the authority to do these assessments to the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that is typically the project proponent.  Impact statements continuously assume the effects are minimal or do not exist.  The dredge and fill lobby maintains that whatever effect the projects are having are only temporary.  But the fact of the matter is that most of these projects require continued "re-nourishment," so even if the beach critters do recover they will be covered again. 




Everyone agrees that beach replenishment is only a temporary solution as the fill just gets washed back to sea.  According to Pilkey “26 percent of replenished U.S. Atlantic Coast barrier beaches (from the south shore of Long Island to Miami) were effectively gone in less than one year, while 62 percent lasted between two and five years, and 12 percent (all in southeast Florida) lasted more than five years.”  Filled beaches erode two to twelve times faster than native beaches.  Shoreline engineering ultimately weakens the beaches, and coastal geologists have warned that interfering with natural beach processes may actually increase the risk of flooding.




Despite beach erosion problems and the fact that development accelerates damage to the beach, almost every state on the east coast continues to allow new development and rebuilding right up to the fore-dune.  Federal Emergency Management insurance has allowed home and hotel owners to recoup losses after weather events and to be provided with sand at taxpayers' expense so they can rebuild in the exact same place further compounding the erosion.  Continued dredge and filling of beaches will further open the way for new waves of building on private property that is now un-developable.


There are more sensible models for development. When Hurricane Opal hit the Florida panhandle in 1995, towns like Destin and Dune-Allen were devastated, but the town of Seaside -- a recently constructed village of 280 old-Florida-style frame homes set back behind the dunes -- came out unscathed.


Inappropriate Tax expenditure:


The watchdog organization Taxpayers for Common Sense claims that federal beach dredge and fill projects are merely a subsidy for wealthy beach communities benefiting only those who can afford property along coast, arguing that taxpayers wind up paying to protect private property.  This is particularly noteworthy, considering the fact that many of the filled beaches offer very little parking/public access. 




Environmental groups have proposed an alternative to dredge and fill projects called “Planned Retreat.” They are suggesting that the government begin to buy up threatened properties and return them to a pre-developed condition.  Dredge and fill proponents say this would cost billions of dollars and send coastal real estate values plummeting.  But given the massive reoccurring expenditures involved in beach filling, this alternative would be cheaper and in the interest of the general public and beach visitors rather than the few wealthy coastal property owners.  Of course, the political will necessary to do that is not there yet because, yes, it does seem a bit on the extreme side.   But, cutting taxes and buying threatened properties out when erosion reaches their foundations does make sense.  That obviously can't happen in places populated with all high rises.  Dredge and fill projects will undoubtedly continue there.  In these instances Environmental Groups are asking that the Corps do these projects in ways that aren’t so harmful to near-shore habitat and to not proceed with giant, squared off, massive beaches that extend a quarter mile off shore where they are burying everything in sight every five to seven years.  Right now, that's the standard template in almost all off the East Coast. 




The Corps of Engineers is at a crossroads. The 19th-Century thinking that they can ditch, drain, straighten, dam, levee, control and defy Mother Nature is changing.  In 1990, “environmental restoration” joined flood control and navigation as a primary mission of the Corps’.  The agency should consider this mission here and reevaluate the long-term costs of all these projects.  Furthermore, policies should be put in place to discourage hazardous coastal development that threatens the environment and commits government to doing little more than throwing buckets of money to hold back the ocean.


The Surfrider Foundation is leading the charge to ensure these dredge and fill projects are not carried out unless absolutely necessary and if so, that they are done so in a less destructive manner.  For more information, check out their website at and click on your local chapter’s link.