Fake beaches wreak havoc on sea life

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TAKING coals to Newcastle might be a waste of time, but it would not destroy the planet. But taking sand to Skegness might do just that, according to environmentalists.

Skegness was just one of many British resorts which boomed after the Second World War, luring millions of trippers to its broad beach with mountainous dunes.

They were halcyon days for the great British family holiday. On the beach children frolicked and made sandcastles while parents snoozed in deckchairs.

But by the beginning of the Nineties, summer visitors were more likely to step off the promenade straight through a thin veneer of sand and into knee-deep silt and slime - all that remained of the once majestic beach. Coastal erosion had literally wiped the beach away.

In 1994, a multi-million-pound scheme to replenish the golden dunes with eight million tons of sand dredged from the North Sea was begun, and today the town's beach has been returned to its former glory.

Similar exercises are taking place all over the world, as the effects of erosion and the global explosion in tourism have turned sand into a highly prized commodity.

But at what cost? From Mablethorpe to Manhattan, man-made beaches are being manufactured for our holiday pleasure, but out at sea, where the sand is being scraped and sucked up by giant dredgers, entire eco-systems are being wrecked, say environmentalists.

Samantha Pollard, a marine biologist at the Marine Conservation Society in Ross-on-Wye, said: "At the moment the oceans are considered to be a never-ending pot of resources which people can dip into whenever they want. But it is out of control."

Indeed, soon after the dredging began for the Skegness scheme, the shrimp catch in nearby coastal waters crashed, jeopardising the livelihood of hundreds of local fishermen who had harvested shrimp since the reign of King John.

Experts said the shortage was caused by plumes of sediment thrown up by the sand extraction, smothering the sea floor. In addition, the dredging was in the worst possible place, blocking the shrimps' migration to deeper water from their breeding grounds.

Skegness, which now achieves top marks in beach surveys, is the most acute example of a coastal erosion problem affecting hundreds of beaches along Britain's coastline, turning once pristine beaches into rough shingle.

Replenishing them with dredged sand is only a short-term solution because the dredging off-shore eventually increases erosion on the coast, creating a vicious circle. As a result, it is predicted that the coast at Skegness will be again become denuded in the next 40 years.

Other beaches are also being raided for sand. In Cornwall, the idyllic inlet at Poldhu Cove has been stripped bare by local farmers exercising a legal right dating back to 1609, which allows them to remove up to 100 tons of sand a day for use as a straw substitute and in slurry.

In hotter climates, where tourism is a vital part of the economy, the obsession with creating sandy beaches is even greater. Use a bucket and spade to dig into the sand on the French Riviera or the volcanic Canary Islands, where thousands of tons of fine, white sand are imported from the Bahamas and Morocco, and a few inches below the surface you will hit concrete or solid rock.

Ms Pollard said: "There are areas along the Red Sea where tourism is growing rapidly and the hotels all want their bits of golden sand. Sand is taken from less busy beaches up the road and moved to the tourist sites. This is beginning to have a major impact on the eco-system."

John Turner of the School of Ocean Science, University of Wales at Bangor, who has made a study of the exquisite and fragile coral reefs around the tropical island of Mauritius, said that beach-building had inflicted significant damage on the reefs. The best beaches were used to front the first hotels built and, as a result, later developments were forced to construct their own.

"These hotels create beaches and change the topography causing erosion and sediment deposits which damage the corals. All unsightly sea life is then removed for cosmetic reasons, creating a totally lifeless environment," he said.

But it would seem that the craving for sun, sea and sand knows no bounds. Even in New York, there is a plan to build a beach on the west side of Manhattan. Why? "We are the only borough in New York without one," said a spokeswoman.