Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

 Integrated coastal management planning strategies


Part 1        Coastal zone as an ecological, social and economic system

Chapter 1.1 Coastal zone as a natural object – an ecosystem

The shore is the place where sea and land meet. Geographers, geologists and biologists unanimously acknowledge the unique properties of coastal zones as the contact zone between the lithosphere and the hydrosphere.

This interface is represented on geographic maps as a thin coastline. This line, also known as the shoreline, is a good example of the statistic approach to shore study. Actually, the interface is a dynamic system. The size, boundaries and shape of this system constantly change under the influence of different factors – both natural and anthropogenic (see Table 2) In order to take into account coastal dynamics it is more appropriate to use the term coastal area, or zone rather than “coastline”.

Table 2
Factors influencing coastal zone dynamics

Natural factors




Changes in World Ocean level

Coastal vegetation


River run-off

Anthropogenic factors

Hydro-engineering constructions (dams, port facilities)

Civil and industrial engineering

Dredging and aggregation

Mining operations

Destroying vegetation

Coastal protection constructions

Water intake and spillways


Within the coastal zone some areas are characterized by intensive interaction between water and land (beaches, marshes, mangroves, wetlands, coral reefs), while in other ones the interaction is not so pronounced (rocky shores, glacier edges) It is extremely difficult to define precisely the area within which this interaction takes place. The situation with estuaries is even more complicated. They influence the coastal area so profoundly that in dealing with a number of practical and scientific problems one needs to consider the whole catchment basin of the river as a coastal area.

The study of estuaries and flat sand beaches makes is possible in some cases to trace the “gradient of transition” from the terrestrial to the aquatic environment. Only a few coasts (for example, precipitous rocky and glacial ones) have a sharp, distinct border between the two. Such a distinct border is an exception rather than the rule.

The presence of a gradient of transition that is a smooth transfer from sea to land and vice versa, significantly complicates the delimitation of the coastal zone – an operation that is essential for planning, zoning, mapping and other management activities. It should be mentioned, that generally speaking, delimitation is an activity peculiar to human beings who pursue practical aims, but not at all to Nature. Any border depicted on a map is always conditional and relative. So delimitation depends to a considerable degree on specific goals and particular cases.

The natural ecosystem forms the “body” of the coastal zone, which represents an object of planning. The ecosystem is a biotic community (biocenosis) that interacts with its abiotic environment (biotope) in a sustainable manner over a long time-span. The biotic community and the biotope mutually influence each other through the continuous exchange of energy, information and materials. Basic properties of ecosystems are their ability to produce biomass and to be self-sustaining.

Shore and coastal biotopes are extremely diverse. Nevertheless, to a first approximation, they can be divided into eleven basic types. These types, shown in Figure 3, can be sub-divided into either primary or secondary coasts. Primary coasts are coasts that have not undergone significant change under the influence of abiotic or biotic factors since their formation. Their properties are determined by erosion and sedimentation (accumulation of sediments coming from land) and by volcanic and tectonic activity. Secondary coasts are those that have been formed under the influence of hydrodynamic processes (abrasion, accumulation of sea-transported sediments) and the vital activity of marine organisms.

1- flooded river valley
2- river delta
3- fjord
4- gletcher
5- volcano
6- tectonic
7- abrasive
8 and 9 - accumulative
8- barrier
9 - long capes
10- mangrove
11- coral


Figure 3. Types of shore and coastal biotopes

Coral reefs and mangrove swamps are well-known examples of biogenic coasts. These ecosystems are not typical of the shores of Russia, but some biogenic reefs formed by bivalve molluscs and sponges occur near the Kurile Islands.

Some natural biotopes have been transformed by, often imprudent, human economic activities to such a degree that they can not be classified as any of the types mentioned above. They are called anthropogenic shores, that is, shores transformed by human activity.

Based on these classifications a manager can obtain important background information concerning the degree of appropriateness of various shores for various purposes. For example: secluded lagoons, fiords and straits between islands within archipelagos may be used for fish-farming; flat sand shores are ideal places for public beaches; building port facilities on skerries (small, rocky islands too small for habitation) is not advisable as navigation between numerous skerries along complicated fairways is risky and difficult. 

The broad range of various coastal biotopes contributes to the formation of extremely diverse biotic communities within coastal zones.

Different combinations of biotopes and biocenoses produce a virtually infinite diversity of coastal ecosystems. In the most general form, however, they may be classified as follows:


            river delta;



            coral reef;

            rocky littoral;


            muddy beach;


            mangrove swamps;

            coastal forest.

In addition to shore morphology and bottom relief, the major contributing factor to the formation of a coastal ecosystem is the bottom type. Bottom types are usually classified as belonging to one of two basic groups – hard (rocky, stony) and soft (muddy, sandy) The main characteristic of a hard bottom is its ability to serve as a firm substrate to which various organisms (seaweed and animals) can attach themselves. So, a kind of “underwater jungle” with a high degree of biodiversity can develop. Soft bottomed coasts are not so convenient for the development of biotic communities. Usually they are inhabited by organisms which bury themselves in the ground (“infauna”) The essential difference between a muddy and a sandy bottom is that the former is formed by silting (that is, by constant hydrodynamic mass transfer), while the latter consists of smaller fractions and testifies to stable sedimentation in zones with calm hydrodynamic conditions.

The biotic communities of the coastal zone are characterized by maximum biological productivity in comparison with other ecosystems. On average, potential biological productivity (protein per unit area) is 20 times higher along the continental shelf then on land. The coastal zone is an area of maximum concentration and diversity of species; more than 80% of marine biomass is located within the coastal zone. The coastal zone houses a unique and significant genetic pool.

The sustainability of the coastal zone depends on the diversity and structure of its biotic communities. Coastal vegetation (“macrophytes”) and colonies of benthic invertebrates (shellfish, barnacles, bryozoa, sponges, polychaeta, coral polyps) contribute to coastline stabilization. Analysis of shore washout problems clearly shows the important role of biotic communities. Sustainability implies not only preservation of structure, but also maintenance of a certain quality of the environment. Coastal areas (contact zones of sea and land) serve as a marginal filter – one of the basic ecological filters of Earth’s biosphere.

Chapter 1.2 Coastal zone under anthropogenic pressure

The high productivity of coastal ecosystems and the diversity of coastal biotopes account for the extraordinary abundance of natural resources in the coastal zone. Based on the classification system devised by V. Limarev it is possible to distinguish the following types of coastal zone resources: foodstuffs (biological), raw materials (mineral, chemical, water), energy, recreational and health resources.

Since coastal zone resources are so attractive to people shores around the world are focal points for various human activities. The principle forms of anthropogenic activity in the coastal zone are: fishing; aquaculture; coastal agriculture, forestry, hydro-technical engineering and coastal construction, mining, shipbuilding (in dockyards), oil extraction, transfer and transportation, electric power generation, cabotage (coastal navigation), seaport operation, naval operations, tourism and recreation. The sum of all these activities forms the anthropogenic pressure experienced by the coastal zone.

Today the need for ocean resources is steadily increasing. Comprehensive use of the resources is an important goal that influences the formation of national and world marine industries.  During the late twentieth and early twenty first century a steep increase in coastal zone economic activity took place, leading to a significant growth of population density in coastal zones. 40% of the urban population lives in the coastal zone, 56% of cities with a population of over 1 million and 70% of cities with a population of over 3 million are located within the coastal zone. All this makes the coastal zone a place where a significant (if not a major) part of world economic potential is concentrated.

The diversity and intensity of anthropogenic activity in the coastal zone means that examples of all the current environmental, social and economic problems can be found in this zone. A high concentration of different stakeholders (users of natural resources) with different interests in the coastal zone inevitably leads to a high concentration of problems. This concentration of problems is a particularly pressing topic for Russia because after the break-up of the Soviet Union its coastline has decreased.

The concentration of problems within the coastal zone inevitably leads to conflict situations. The emergence and escalation of conflicts within the coastal zone is caused by spatio-temporal and economic-environmental incompatibility of different types of economic activities. One can get an idea of the acuteness of these conflicts from the results of special studies carried out in the 1970s by several American scientists. They analyzed the interaction between more then 20 types of economic activities that take place within the coastal zone and revealed conflict situations in nearly 150 cases, 10% being very serious.

The reasons for conflict situations in the coastal zone are concerned with two groups of factors – problems between different kinds of economic use of natural resources and imbalance between anthropogenic activities and the natural environment. The probability of conflict increases when land is scarce.

Today the main conflict in the use of coastal resources is between industrial (technological) progress and the deterioration of natural resources. Scientific and technological progress that expands the scale of anthropogenic influence leads to numerous undesirable consequences for coastal ecosystems. The primary problems of the coastal zone concerned with industrial and technological progress of the twentieth century are:

Anthropogenic factors often play a decisive, limiting role in sea coasts. Intensification of anthropogenic pressure often has disastrous effects, that is, leads to irreversible changes and makes it impossible for human beings to survive in the resulting disturbed environment.

In Russia significant negative changes concerning coastal ecosystems have been recorded in the Sea of Azov, Caspian Sea, Black Sea, Baltic Sea and the Japan Sea, particularly in the littoral zone, in gulfs and bays. Within the territory of the former Soviet Union the most formidable environmental crisis is the one in the Aral Sea region.

Anthropogenic factors that negatively affect the normal functioning of coastal ecosystems or even make this functioning impossible may be characterized as anthropogenic disturbances. These may be sub-divided into four groups:

  1. Chemical pollution – increase in the concentration of certain chemical substances above natural levels.
    1. Toxic chemical pollution: inflow (with sewage) of detergents, chemical and pharmaceutical industry wastes, washout of pesticides from agricultural lands etc.
    2. Non-toxic chemical pollution: excess of normal percentage of nutrients – organic substances (nitrogen, phosphorus) – that leads to over development of bacteria and cyanobacteria (euthrophication)
    3. Mixed pollution: simultaneous inflow of both toxic and non-toxic substances, for example, oil spillage, dumping household rubbish.
  2. Physical pollution – changing of biotope parameters (that is, changing of characteristics of the environment)
    1. Thermal pollution – caused by discharge of heated waters into the coastal zone (for example, heating of surface water in Koporskaya Bay, Gulf of Finland as water from the bay is used for cooling the reactors of the nuclear power plant in Sosnovyi Bor)
    2. Noise pollution – a high level of background noise caused by large-capacity engines and small-sized vessels, noise produced by people on beaches.
    3. Light pollution – lighting of shoreline at night by light from hotels, streets, hydraulic engineering constructions.
    4. Radioactive pollution – radioactive accidents and disasters.
    5. Electromagnetic impact – generating artificial electromagnetic fields in the near-shore zone (resulting, for example, from cable laying)
  3. Biological pollution – disturbances and changes in biocenosis composition
    1. Disappearance of certain species – resulting from, for example, excessive hunting or harvesting (whales, seals), high disturbance level (coastal birds), complete extermination (manatee)
    2. Occasional introduction of a species alien to a given biocenosis that causes its significant (sometimes disastrous) reorganization (examples: planctonic Cercopages pengoi in the Baltic Sea and planctonic Ctenophora in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov)
    3. Deliberate introduction of a species that seems to be economically profitable (king crab on the Barents coast of the Kola Peninsula, Far Eastern humpback salmon in the White sea)
  4. Destruction of habitat (biotopes) – complete or partial destruction of coastal ecosystems or their reorganization caused by engineering or mining activities.
    1. Extraction of sand, gravel, pebbles and granite for building.
    2. Creation of artificial coastal territories – a practice which is widespread in Japan and The Netherlands.
    3. Hydro-engineering constructions that separate part of the coastal (water) territory from marine ecosystem (dams of tidal power stations, filtering dams)
    4. Damping and shifting of the bottom sediments - for example, during dredging.
    5. Development of coastal land (building houses)
    6. Deforestation of coastal zone (logging of forests and mangrove swamps)
    7. Destruction of coral reefs (for example, caused by the souvenir industry)

The classification given above is by no means the only one. For example, anthropogenic disturbances can be classified as direct or indirect. The former group includes coastal zone development, hydro-engineering, shifting of bottom ground during dredging. The latter group includes: euthrophication that causes gradual reorganization of the trophic chain of the ecosystem, rising of the World Ocean level caused by the “greenhouse effect”; chemical pollution.

The distinctive characteristic of direct disturbances is an immediate reaction within the ecosystem. The consequences of indirect disturbances may reveal themselves several years or even decades later.

Anthropogenic disturbances may be divided into two categories: “technogenic”, those resulting directly from the use of machinery and “technoplaganetic”, insidious disturbances whose mechanism of influence on natural processes is obscure and difficult to understand. The latter includes the introduction and acclimatization of fish species and fisheries.

According to experts, major sources of coastal pollution are: coastal industry (1%), refuse dumping (10%), coastal transport (12%), toxic precipitation (33%) and liquid wastes from the land (44%)

Typical pollutants of coastal land and marine areas include: benzopyren (high concentrations are recorded near port facilities and industrial areas); chlorinated hydrocarbons; various plastics; sewage from cities and seaside resorts; heavy metals (mercury, cadmium, lead, arsenic, nickel, zinc); and radioactive substances. The accumulation of wood on beaches and in estuaries and bottom sedimentation of industrial waste is typical of the coastal zone and hampers spawning and migration of fish.

Thus uncontrolled anthropogenic pressure on the coastal zone can lead to deterioration of coastal ecosystems, overuse and exhaustion of natural resources, pollution of the coastal environment and escalation of tensions between stakeholders (users of coastal zone resources) A list of widespread misconceptions that often lead to unwise decisions with  far-reaching negative consequences can be compiled by analyzing examples of coastal zone mismanagement. Decisions made on the basis of the following misconceptions can result in grave environmental problems.

Common misconceptions:

1.      The consumption of resources is a natural process that leads to general welfare and comfort (“shopping is recreation”, “if people stop buying, jobs will be lost”, “everyone would like a house at the seaside, a motor yacht and a jeep”)

2.      One should concentrate on today and not anticipate future problems (“solve problems as they arise”, “short term advantages are more important then long-term perspectives”, “everybody lives on credit and feels fine”, “to think about future generations is to think about something that does not exist and might never appear”)

3.      Economic growth is the main indicator of success (“growth in gross national product is the principle criterion of a successful economy”, “the more consumer goods we produce the better”, “it is economically unprofitable to preserve resources”)

4.      A free market is an ideal economic system for any country (“the political system must support individual enterprise”, “money can buy anything”)

5.      It is better to pay less then to pay more (“we have lot of oil so petrol must be cheap”, “why should someone who lives by the river pay for water?”, “state authorities must maintain low food and utility prices”)

6.      If something works it will hopefully continue to do so (“this lake is so large that discharge of untreated sewage will not damage it”, “our fathers and grandfathers fished in this estuary and it will last our time”, “the ozone layer has existed for millions of years, and it can not suddenly disappear”)

7.      Until scientists give clear evidence that a problem exists it is not something we need to worry about (“nobody can provide statistical data testifying that smoking is harmful”, “forecasts about the rising level of the World Ocean can not be verified”)

8.      Introduction of new technologies can solve any environmental problem (“the green revolution will feed all starving people”, “if the Earth becomes overpopulated people will settle on other planets”)

Chapter 1.3 Comprehensive approach to identifying the object of planning

The wise use of coastal resources, reduction (or at least regulation) of anthropogenic pressure and the resolution of conflicts between different stakeholders is possible only on the basis of a comprehensive approach to planning and management.

A comprehensive approach implies that the coastal zone is considered as an integrated ecological, social and economic system which includes:

The planning process requires analysis of a great deal of information about each of these components (“subsystems”) Misinterpretation of the role played by any of these subsystems may lead to serious mistakes. Each of the subsystems is important and can only be studied through relevant scientific research (see Table 3)

Table 3
Ecological, social and economic analysis of coastal systems

Coastal sub-systems


Key elements for the analysis


Ecological and geographical subsystem

Biodiversity, description of biotopes, characteristics of landscapes, mineral resources

Social and economic subsystem

Cultural diversity, economic structure, social and demographic structure, specificity of nature management

Administrative and legal subsystem

Political and administrative structure, non governmental organisations (NGOs), mass media


A comprehensive view of the system can only be obtained on the basis of an interdisciplinary approach. This is why coastal zone studies require interdisciplinary task forces (groups of experts in different areas) This is also why only scientists who have a broad range of scientific interests and are able to see past the boundaries of certain disciplines can successfully solve the problems concerned with coastal zone planning.

The most natural way to define the boundaries of the object of planning is to follow the natural shape of the coastal ecosystem. Administrative, political, economic and other “anthropogenic” boundaries are more or less artificial and relatively impermanent.

Similarly, laws established by people, even the most deliberate ones, will never be as immutable and indisputable as the laws of nature. Disregard of natural laws leads to serious environmental dysfunction.

The ecological, social and economic systems of coastal areas can sustain over a long time-span if the following basic “coastal zone rules” are observed:

  1. Each coastal ecosystem is unique and requires a specific management strategy. Using standard approaches (state standards, rules and norms) does not necessarily help to solve existing problems – on the contrary, it can lead to environmental disaster.
  2. Protection of the coastal zone includes not only the protection of the coastal vegetation and animal communities, but also comprehensive protection of biotopes (dunes, beaches and wetlands) that constitute the “body” (foundation) of the ecological, social and economic system. Any (even the smallest) changes in biotopes can affect the stability of the system as a whole.
  3. The physical, biological and social processes in the coastal area can only be understood properly if its ecological, social and economic systems are considered as a whole. Any deviation from a systematic approach may lead to reductionism.
  4. For each coastal area there is a particular set of natural and anthropogenic risks that threaten its ecological, social and economic system; the common threat is the rise of World Ocean levels.
  5. Coastal zone development plans should take into account ecological potential. Productivity and sustainability of coastal ecosystems depends on certain objective factors and cannot exceed the levels determined by the laws of nature.







Wise Practices