Sandy beach social-ecological systems at risk: regime shifts, collapses and governance challenges

Published in Ecology and the Environment, 2021

Defeo, O., McLachlan, A., Armitage, D., Elliott, M. & Pittman, J.


Publication year 2021

UNDECIMAR, Faculty of Sciences, Iguá 4225, 11400 Montevideo, Uruguay
Institute for Coastal and Marine Research, Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa
School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3C5, Canada
 Department of Biological and Marine Sciences, The University of Hull, HULL, HU6 7RX, UK International Estuarine & Coastal Specialists Ltd, Leven, HU17 5LQ, UK
School of Planning, Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3C5, Canada

IAI Program

O.D. and J.P. were supported by the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (grant SGP-HW 017). O.D. was also supported by  Comisión Sectorial de Investigación Científica of Uruguay (CSIC Grupos ID 32). D.A. was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research  Council of Canada. 

IAI Project SGP-HW 017


Sandy beach ecosystems make up almost half of the world’s ice-free ocean coastline and function as social–ecological systems
No other ecosystem on the planet is subject to such a high level of human recreational use, which is increasing worldwide as demand for leisure time rises;
We illustrate a global trend in social–ecological shifts and collapses of sandy beach ecosystems due to local and distant pressures;
A lack of long-term policies and strategic planning reduces governance capacity, which must be participatory and resilient to environmental changes.



Sandy shores make up half of the world&rsquos ice-free ocean coastlines and support a higher level of recreational use than any other ecosystem. However, the contribution of sandy beaches to societal welfare is being affected by both local and distant pressures, including expanding human development and climate-related stressors. These pressures are impairing the capacity of beaches to satisfy recreation, provide food, protect livelihoods, and maintain biodiversity and water quality. This will increase the likelihood of social-ecological collapses and regime shifts, so that beaches will sustain neither the original ecosystem function nor the related services and societal goods and benefits that they provide. These social-ecological systems at the land-sea interface are subject to market forces, weak governance institutions, and societal indifference: most people want a beach, but few recognize it as an ecosystem at risk.