Life in the Wrack

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The waters surrounding our little island are a vast, opaque mystery. There are thousands of different types of fish, crustaceans and mollusks – eating, fighting and trying not to be on anyone else’s menu. Various plants float around, or try to stay anchored to, the shifting sandy bottoms that support everything from manatees to sea turtles. We have long periods of delightfully calm and sunny weather separated by awe inspiring – and sometimes scary – violent storms. Our trees bend, our oceans swell and our roads flood. Rain slashes horizontally, rattling windows and stinging faces. The situation below the surface of the water is no less epic. Churning water scours the seabed, tossing normally anchored sea creatures and plants around like they are in a washing machine. Sudden changes in sea temperature can overwhelm a shellfish’s ability to move to more hospitable locations. Blooms of algae, exceptionally cold water and strong currents kill off and expose some of the rich variety of sea life. Some of these poor stressed creatures end up washed up on our beaches as ‘wrack’, that line of sea debris just above the surf.

The wrack is a natural part of any beach, and ours is no exception. Wrack is a vital and interesting – if sometimes inconvenient – feature of any beach. It collects wind blown sand, provides structure that helps the beach combat erosion, provides nutrients to the poor sandy soil, holds a banquet for our varied and fascinating shorebirds and carries in seeds for dune plants that help preserve our beach. It also gives us a rare glimpse into that unseen world that lives in the water and sand. Shell collectors and gulls share the bounty, and the scientific and curious revel in the display. Everyone can just absorb the display of a life usually hidden from our view. And what a display: shellfish of every shape and size, primitive life forms like the blobby sea pork, all kinds of worms that bury themselves in the sand, sea stars, sand dollars, and plants of different colors and shapes. Every one of these creatures ends up on the beach for different reasons. Their misfortune provides us a glimpse into a hidden world. How many Sea Stars and Florida Fighting Conchs must be in our waters if that many wash ashore after a storm? Some of these creatures wash up because of the waves, but most are seriously stressed or even dead and are destined to perish on our beach. Those that are still healthy enough can easily withstand being out of the water through a tidal cycle. Others are so stressed that throwing them back into the water will only delay the inevitable. They will end up being lunch for a gull or crab and eventually ending up in someone’s shell collection.

Wrack is an emotional issue for many on our beach. Some feel that a good beach is a “clean” and raked beach, free of plants and wrack. Others see the beauty of a completely natural beach, full of dune plants and shells. The reality is that for every situation there are winners and losers. Shell collectors, crabs, gulls and other shore birds are feasting during heavy wrack events. Our volatile, moving beach benefits from the addition of binding materials, nutrients and seeds. Dogs are sure to find something smelly to rub themselves into – another reason to keep your dog on the required six-foot leash! But wrack is a natural material and decomposes like any other natural material. Light wrack is quickly absorbed into the beach, but great accumulations can linger. Exceptional events create exceptional wrack. There are cases when town codes dictate when and how exceptional wrack is dealt with. Excessive accumulations are allowed to be removed using rakes, but minor levels are to be left to nourish and protect the beach. The recent Coastal Management Plan for our beach shows how vulnerable our beach is to forces of storms, erosion and the gradual yet persistent rise in sea level. Hauling excess material away from the beach is a force in the wrong direction – beach starvation as opposed to nourishment.

The life that washes up on our beaches is diverse and complicated. Treat yourself to examining the mystery of life on earth that is represented on our beaches, even if it sometimes gets a bit ripe. We are privileged to live on a walkable seven mile long stretch of beach. Those that make the rewarding effort to explore the entire stretch of our beach realize its diversity, from ‘natural and wild’ southern sections to the ‘quiet residential center’ to the wild (in a different way) ‘business district’. The balance between the expectations of some and the health of the beach is a delicate one, and tipped by the whims of nature. Wrack that seems excessive can be washed out with the next tide or linger and stink. A clean raked beach is beautiful, but it is also more sterile and more susceptible to erosion. A deeper look into a natural beach is a more interesting view, one full of mystery, discovery and insight into the miracle of life in our shared world. A look at a raked beach is like looking at a blank canvas and a beach without rack is like a gallery without art.

Bill Veach

Chairman, Marine Resources Task Force