Beaches - Drowning under a Sea of Weed?

Professor Ian Walker (Department of Geography, University of Victoria, Canada )

Grattan Beach, The Claddagh, Galway city 11:00 :: 23rd August 2012

As part of the Institute's Visiting Fellowship Programme, Professor Ian Walker, a leading expert on coastal dune dynamics, from the University of Victoria in Canada will lead a field trip to Grattan Beach on Thursday 23rd August to meet with locals interested in issues of beach use and management, giving his views from experiences on the Canadian coast.

The beaches of Galway City are a very valuable natural resource, but are they threatened by the vast amounts of seaweed that wash up on them every year? The challenge of managing these very dynamic environments - where the sea, land and atmosphere all interact – is the job of the local council. This task is now more difficult as stricter Blue Flag Beach rules are enforced. Seaweed has long been labelled as a ‘problem’ in the management of beaches, due to the odour given off as it decomposes and the nuisance caused to beach users, especially if it has washed ashore in the quantities shown in the photos. Periodically the seaweed is removed from the beaches, incurring considerable costs. In the case of Grattan Beach plants growing directly on the beach are also removed during this ‘cleaning’ of the beach. The rules for Blue Flag status say that no beach material (including sand, seaweed or plants) should be removed from beaches. This is because these materials are an integral part of the natural processes that form the beaches, and in some locations, the sand dunes at the back of the beaches. Seaweed and plants which colonise the upper beach tend to trap sand that is brought onshore by waves and moved landward by the wind. After time the earlier plants may be replaced by more persistent plants such as marram grass that are more efficient in trapping sand and building dunes. In addition to the fixing of sand the seaweed and early flowering plants locally increase the biodiversity of the beaches, with insect and invertebrate numbers increasing, leading to an increase in birds that feed on these. The Blue Flag Beach scheme values letting these natural processes operate with as little human inference as possible. At a broader scale, coastal dunes and beaches are seen as a valuable resource, providing humans with important services such as coastal protection and erosion control, a water source and purification, maintenance of wildlife, carbon sequestration, tourism, recreation, education, and research. A recent example of this was highlighted as part of a major European funded project, the Atlantic Network for Coastal Risk Management (ANCORIM) project, carried out by Dr Kevin Lynch of the Geography Discipline at NUI Galway, where the large coastal dune systems play an important role on Ireland’s west coast in dissipating wave energy and in flood protection.

So, when it comes to Galway’s city beaches, are there alternative strategies that could be employed in their management? While academics such as Dr Walker and Dr Lynch may have their views and the local council the responsibility, there are a very broad range of people who have a stake in these valuable resources – from occasional visitors to local residents and business owners (such as B&B owners fronting onto Grattan beach), to event operators (such as the recent Aquaton), to businesses that have seaweed as their raw material, to educational bodies (such as the NUIG’s Geography Discipline or the Salthill’s Atlantaqaria).

All of these stakeholder are invited to the field trip on 23rd August to give their views on the issues of beach management. The event is part of celebration of 50 years of Geography at NUI Galway. Visiting scholar Dr Ian Walker is supported by Institute for Business, Social Sciences and Public Policy at NUI Galway. The field trip will be followed by a seminar at 2.00pm in CA110, Cairnes Building, NUI Galway, Upper Newcastle Road, Galway. The event is part of the celebration of 50 years of Geography at NUI Galway, and visiting scholar Dr Ian Walker is supported by the Institute for Business, Social Sciences and Public Policy at NUI Galway.

All Welcome

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