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After I returned to Okinawa, Japan in 2014 from living in Mildenhall, England for three years, my family took a walk on the seawall in Sunabe, part of the Chatan, Nakagami District. A few moments into our walk, my family started to recall what Sunabe used to look like three years ago and how much it has changed in those three years.  The beach along the seawall seemed to be disappearing because of new coastal development projects.

I experienced a similar observation when I went to Siesta Key, Florida this past year.  The beach had become smaller since 2006 as more hotels, boardwalks, and shopping areas started to flood the area.

What is the problem?  We are increasing our development along the coast, to support our growing population.  This includes us building oil platforms, houses, hotels, restaurants, roads, and seawalls.  As of 2016, coastal counties are home to 40% of the U.S. population, while the coast only accounts for 10% of the nation’s landmass. Supporting all these people limits the ability for species that call the coast their home to thrive and flourish.

As we increase coastal development, our coastal marine ecosystems that only makeup 4% of the territory in the U.S. today suffer.  These ecosystems are home to mangroves, kelp forests, coral reefs, estuaries, seagrass beds, and salt marshes.

If we keep building coastal development, then we will lose many of the resources these ecosystems provide forever. For example, mangroves which exist in Florida and span the coast all the way to Texas and coral reefs that extend from the Atlantic Ocean, to the Gulf of Mexico, which extends to the Caribbean Sea, and finally the Pacific Ocean protect coastal communities from erosion and destruction caused by storms.

The U.S. relies on the coastal marine ecosystems, for more than just supporting our growing population, we rely on it for tourism, jobs, and the fishing industry. Coastal counties generate billions of dollars annually through the fishing industry and tourism industry.  What is going to happen to those industries if we continue to develop our nations coasts without further regulations?

If we continue to develop our nations coast without further regulations, then both the tourism industry and fishing industries will be negatively impacted. The tourism industry will be impacted because the things tourists come to see will be destroyed, so that a new hotel can be built.  The fishing industry will be impacted because many of the ecosystems that fish need to survive, will be destroyed, forcing us to get fish from other places.

How do we protect our growing population and at the same time protect our coastal environments? It is not simply enough to say we need to stop further coastal development projects.  We must learn how our actions impact the environment, and then create solutions that benefits us and the environments we are surrounded by. Today, coastal development is managed by the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 (CZMA), which is administered by NOAA.

While, CZMA has some great underlying policies, there is too much flexibility in how coastal development is regulated. What policies can we try to create to help CZMA, regulate coastal development?

A policy that could help regulate coastal development is a policy that requires any coastal development or federal agency to submit a report, stating how the environment is impacted, and what they plan to do to either help or restore that environment once they are done developing.

Policies that encourage regulation of coastal development, so that marine ecosystem are not harmed, will not only preserve coastal marine ecosystems, but it will also reduce marine debris, help indirectly with rising sea levels, and help maintain biodiversity.

Reducing coastal development is important for, both normative and instrumental reasons. In a normative sense, we will maintain biodiversity and preserve resources that we all need.  On an instrumental level, regulation of coastal development will provide measurable standards for how we use coastal marine ecosystems, and how using those ecosystems harms the resources we need from them.

Coastal development is important to the U.S. population and I am not saying that we should stop it altogether.  What I am saying is that we need to think more consciously about how us improving our communities, impacts the environments supporting those communities.

The next time you go walking along the beach, look around, and think about what is going to happen if we do not take action to preserve this beautiful environment.

What do we want to leave behind for future generations? Do we want them to live in a world where beaches, coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, estuaries, and kelp forests do not exist? Or do we want them to live in a world that is able to support marine environments, and that is able to keep our growing population alive?