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Coastal Attraction

For years, scores of human beings have flocked to the beaches, looking for sunshine and relaxation. But perhaps now more than ever, seaside attractions and resorts effortlessly seem to pull in the crowds. And this sprawling human activity has saturated coastal areas. Today, 40% of the world population lives within 60 kilometers of the coast. The demands of mass tourism and its accompanying enormous leisure-complexes have given rise to a frenetic growth in construction. Freighting is also in full swing, as are the fishing and aquaculture industries. In France alone, humans have remodeled more than a quarter of the land located within 500 meters of the water. In fact, population density on the coasts reaches 272 inhabitants per square kilometer (the national average is 108). Evidently, the coast is in need of protection. But how can we balance out user demand with the preservation of the coastal environment? And are the world's public policies adapted to sustainable development? CNRS researchers assess the fragile state of the coast and give their opinion on the solutions put in place to preserve it.

11 houses

The United Nations estimates that by 2010, 80% of the world's population will inhabit a coastal strip a hundred kilometers wide–the same area which already holds eight of the world's ten most populated cities.1 And the reason for this is simple. Most people are attracted to the lifestyle that comes with living close to the sea. These areas draw leisure seekers, sport and nature lovers, retirees, or urban dwellers in search of a vacation home. There are also economic reasons for wanting to be near the coast: it facilitates the flow of international merchandise and produces an essential source of food. Climate change is also a factor. Faced with inland droughts, displaced populations slowly but surely make their way towards the coast. Thus seafront construction continues to grow, even in already well-urbanized areas where dykes, quays, polders, and developed beaches are constantly added. In the last five years, towns have swallowed 34% of the coast in Portugal, 27% in Ireland, and 18% in Spain, according to a 2006 European Environmental Agency report.2 The resulting industry run-off, the sewage emanating from towns, and the pesticides leaking from agricultural lands upstream of the estuaries pollute the ocean water. Biodiversity shrinks in the face of increased human presence. Conversely, humans themselves are at risk since the costal strip is a naturally dynamic area, which, if neglected, can have dire consequences. Heavy construction can collapse a cliff, ruptured dykes can flood a city, all of which may result in human and material losses. And forecasts are also grim. Global warming is expected to accelerate coastal dynamics and raise ocean levels. If we listen to the most pessimistic predictions, 150 million people could lose their homes by 2020.


So how can we limit the damage? In France, new laws have pushed for more controlled urban planning. The 1986 Coastal Law, for example, stipulates that “the construction of new roads on beaches, lagoons, dunes, or cliffs is forbidden” and that “new transit roads are to be situated no closer than 2000 meters from the water.” Furthermore, the 100-meter strip of land directly adjacent to the beach must always be clear of construction. Since the year 2000, several coherent territorial schemes (SCOT) were put in place in French communes. The hope is that by organizing the territorial management, a balance can be maintained between urban, industrial, touristic, agricultural, and natural protected areas. But these commendable local initiatives often remain short-lived, because many town officials are eager to permanently attract the northern tourists that traditionally head directly to Spain. To a certain extent, local powers today are even less constrained to push for coastal preservation. “After the government decentralization of the 1980s, mayors are now the ones who grant building permits,” explains Vincent Renard, from the PREG.3 And when you add to this the pressures imposed by wealthy and powerful real-estate developers and “the sovereignty of property rights” in France, it is easier to understand why coasts are turning into giant concrete slabs.
The Coastal Law itself has had unforeseen consequences. Limiting the construction of permanent buildings on the seafront resulted in the sprawl of cabins and bungalows. For Frédéric Bouin, environmental lawyer from the University of Perpignan Via Domitia, “the local owners have reclaimed their land by building temporary wooden cabins, that have since become permanent.” Built without permits, they pose both security and pollution threats in the regions of the Languedoc, the Opal coast, the Camargue, and Corsica. But several examples prove that local management of the coasts can be overpowered. The commune of Criel-sur-Mer in Seine-Maritime, for instance, ordered the destruction of eleven cliff-top houses in March 2006. Even major mistakes can be corrected.
France is not the only country attempting to preserve its 5500-kilometer coastline. Across the world, urban planning is slowly starting to take into account environmental protection and over 50 countries are testing something called Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM). The principle is to integrate all the actors involved in an area (local administration, industry, tourism) to achieve sustainable economic development that respects biologically diverse resources. Projects like this were defined at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which officially recognized the fundamental principles of environmental law. But at the interface of land and sea, of nature and society, of policy and practice, the coast is a complex habitat and these public recommendations prove difficult to apply. Around the Mediterranean, for example, an action plan amended by the 1995 Barcelona Convention brings together the European Union and 21 sea-neighboring states. South of the Mediterranean, however–in Morocco and Tunisia–its recommendations regularly clash with “the development of new urban, tourist, or harbor projects, primarily financed by Persian Gulf States (Qatar, Bahrain, etc.). Some of these projects are massive simply by the number of housing developments, golf courses, and marinas they include,” says Nacima Baron-Yelles, geographer with the DIACT.4 That is why the ICZM protocol for the Mediterranean, to be enforced before 2008, will empower the action plan with a legal implementation.

At the heart of urbanization assaults on global coastlines is tourism. And its flagship is, of course, the Mediterranean. It alone welcomes a quarter of the world's tourism industry, or 158 million tourists a year. But beaches all over the globe are feeling the onslaught of visitors. In addition to traditional beachside tourism, “nomadic tourism” is also gaining ground. The latter seeks out preserved natural spaces and the cultural richness of maritime heritage. Then there is the growing popularity of outdoor sports: scuba diving, surfing, windsurfing, sailing, four-wheeling, hiking, biking, horseback-riding... All these tourists are developing increasingly higher standards, especially for services and lodging. As a consequence, the small resorts, initially designed for recreation or leisure, have now become concrete urban walls, as is the case in Britany's la Baule, or Southern France's La Grande Motte or Cap d'Agde. And this trend is gaining ground worldwide. However, “these sizeable seasonal residential quarters, sometimes private or restricted to the public, increase inequality of access to natural sites that should be restricted to no one, like the seaside,” explains Philippe Deboudt, from the University of Lille-I. As a result, the number of people visiting these waterfront areas designed for tourism is in fact declining. For example, the Spanish tourism model on the coast of Catalonia, designed for a massive occupation of the territory, is now being reconsidered.
In France, there has been a policy of preservation of natural coastal sites since 1975, enforced by the coastal conservatory (Conservatoire du littoral). Today, it owns more than 103,000 hectares of coastline, or nearly 880 of the 5500 kilometer-long French coastline and has started to leave some of it open to the public. The appropriation of fauna and flora is a sustainable way to both preserve species and to promote tourism. To this end, several methods have been put in place: informative signposts, communication initiatives... And above all, park rangers are present at each location to raise visitor awareness, and to streamline or even limit access.
A relatively new concept of eco-tourism has started with the creation in 1990 of the International Society of Ecotourism. For them, ecotourism can be defined as “responsible visits to natural environments where resources and the well-being of the populations are preserved.” Last May, the world ecotourism conference in Oslo urged countries to initiate similar programs. But we are still far from achieving this goal. “To develop ecotourism, we must know the behavior and expectations of the visitors,” explains Louis Brigand, geographer at IUEM.5 For the past ten years, Brigand and his team have been investigating the French seaside to better understand and define the prevailing “tourist profile” of each site. They appraise site frequentation by counting visitors, taking pictures from planes, satellites or boats, or tallying up electricity bills... Surveys are also carried out with the public. The ultimate goal is to establish tourism observatories in France, managed locally to better guide territorial policies.



And what consequence does this sprawling coastal urbanization have on the sea? A coast isn't just the sum of its continental components: ocean transport is an essential part of coastal economy. But is it compatible with sustainable development? “Since 1945, the fleets of cargo ships and boats have grown exponentially. They are the world's cheapest freight carriers, and are at the heart of international commerce,” says Vincent Herbert, of the University of Dunkerque. In France, since 1972, the freight of people and merchandise has tripled in the country's 7 autonomous harbors and 28 commercial ports. Across the world, ships are increasing in size, which means that harbors need significantly larger infrastructures to accommodate them. A visible example of this is Italy's Gioia Tauro seaport, which in just a few years has become the Mediterranean's largest hub. However, these leviathans are gas-guzzlers and sometimes transport dangerous merchandise. In case of accidents, collisions,6 or hull ruptures,7 the resulting coastal pollution is devastating. Bernard Fichaut, of the LETG laboratory,8 puts things into perspective: “The number of oil spills worldwide is decreasing. While accidents occur every second month in China, surveillance has proven useful in countries like France and the US, which now require ships to use double hulls to better contain the cargo.” When an accident does occur, cleaning up and securing the seashores become the responsibility of the local authorities. The problem is that beach clean- up is often hasty, and causes significant damage. For example, tons of sand are taken to dumping grounds or cleaning facilities (170,000 tons in the case of the Erika oil spill) despite the fact that the sediments are vital to the conservation of the coast. A sustainable and cost-effective cleaning technique, called “surfwashing” is being developed and has already been used in Lebanon last year. “We are using the waves' energy. All the polluted sand and pebbles are pushed away towards the top of the beach, to the wave breaking area, where the friction frees the hydrocarbons. As they are lighter than water, they float and are caught in nets or absorbent material,” explains Fichaut. In France, communities in various coastal regions have already come together to encourage this sustainable management of pollution risks. A French research network, the Réseau Français de Recherche Côtière (RFRC), was also launched in 2005 to pilot the prevention and reduction of sea pollution.



From an ocean liner to a fishing boat, the problem is different. How can the fishing community manage natural resources to both preserve their social and economic future and satisfy food demand? In November 2006, an article in Science9 claimed that the fishing industry could be responsible for the near-total disappearance of marine species by the year 2050. No less than 95% of these resources are found near the coasts within a 370-kilometer strip, which is under countries' sovereignty, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ratified by 153 countries. Jean-Pierre Corlay, a fishing geography specialist from the LETG laboratory, regrets that fishing professionals and scientists are being pitted against each other, “when the present tendency is towards common reflection, even if integrated management takes time to organize.” He prefers to take stock of more nuanced data, mainly that emanating from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). According to their numbers, half of the stock is fully exploited, 25% on the verge of extinction, and 25% underexploited. “On a global level, fishing practices are still too intense,” Corlay acknowledges. “The species don't have time to regenerate.” The problem is that curtailing fishing–particularly with financial incentives to downsize the fleets–creates serious social problems: a large number of the 200,000 European fishermen find themselves out of work and have considerable difficulty finding another activity.
farming oysterWell aware that wildlife is at stake, they have participated in local consultations with officials and scientists. A first initiative took place in the bay of Saint-Brieuc, where scallop deposits had virtually been wiped out 15 years earlier. Following a strict containment plan (fishing hours, size, quotas, etc.) agreed to by the local fisheries committee, scientists, and maritime authorities, the deposits regained their productivity rates, and the local economy bounced back. In another initiative, the Association of Shell Diggers of the Oléron Island in Brittany, called upon Louis Marrou, of the university of La Rochelle, to evaluate the risks of overfishing shellfish and crustaceans. His team is currently counting the number and frequency of shell diggers on the island's beaches and mapping their harvest.
Although worldwide fishing catches have stabilized today at 95 million tons (after a rapid increase between 1960-1990), the relative lack of fish products is being compensated by the rise of aquaculture. From 4 million tons in the 1970s, its production rose to 60 million in 2004, 85% of which is from the Asian countries. The problem is that marine aquaculture often conflicts with other coastal uses, such as fishing, leisure, and urbanization, not to mention its consequences on the environment. Today, the tendency is to move breeding structures further out to sea. In France, in the Charente-Maritime region, a management plan for the development of off-shore aquaculture has been put in place, a system whereby breeding ropes covering several acres are attached to buoys. “After a strong initial opposition,” remembers Jean-Pierre Corlay, “cooperation between coastal sea users sealed the deal, and the system works. It is even well accepted.” This goes to show that sustainable development cannot forgo social consultation.

Aude Olivier

The flagship of the French sustainable development model, the “Conservatoire du littoral” (Coastal Conservatory) was created in 1975 with the objective of acquiring fragile and endangered native species. Since then, “its policies have evolved toward the conservation of heritage sites, and finally focusing on the management of its 100,000 hectares, or 400 locations, over 880 kilometers of maritime coasts,” explains Bernard Kalaora, scientific counselor for the conservatory. Today, the conservatory advises the local administrations that manage 90% of the acquisitions. Three key issues have priority: controlling the number of visitors to the sites, identifying the biodiversity objectives to be protected, and lastly, defining a strategy for managing the effects of climate change such as the erosion of the coastline and its submersion.

Contact : Bernard Kalaora,




In 6000 years, the 80,000 hectares that make up the Rhône delta–(the southwestern French region of the Camargue)–were claimed from the sea by the river's sedimentary deposits. Now turned into polders behind the river walls, they are also protected from the sea by a dyke built in 1859 to limit the entry of salt water. “At the time, politicians wanted to desalinate the water to promote agriculture. Their ambition was to create a wheat belt similar to the one in the Nile delta,” explains Bernard Picon, sociologist at the ESPACE laboratory in Arles.1 But this design did not take into account salt water infiltrating the underground water tables. Today, agriculture is confined to the north of the delta. To the south, salt-water ponds have led to the development of a salt industry. And in the center, brackish areas were classified as natural sanctuaries. “In order to produce economic goods and food, rice and salt, the natural properties of the land were strained, but this also contributed to preserving and producing remarkable biodiversity,” explains Picon. “This is a good example of an 'environmental objective' on the cusp of the natural and economic processes. This achievement has made the delta an essential testing ground for reflections on both sustainable development and on finding ways to manage the many risks linked to global warming.”

1. Études des structures, des processus d'adaptation et des changements des espaces (CNRS / Universités Avignon, Montpellier 3, Nice, Aix-Marseille-I and II).

CONTACT : Bernard Picon,


Notes :

1. Tokyo, New York, Seoul, Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, Djakarta, Cairo, and Mumbai.
2. “The Changing Faces of Europe's Coastal Areas” Report, No 6, 2006.
3. Pôle de recherche en économie et gestion (CNRS / Ecole Polytechnique).
4. Délégation interministérielle à l'aménagement et à la compétitivité du territoire.
5. Institut universitaire européen de la mer (CNRS / Universités Nantes, Rennes-II, Brest and Caen).
6. One such accident occurred in December 2002, when two boats, the Kariba and the Tricolor, collided at the entrance of the Pas-de-Calais harbor.
7. As was the case for the Prestige in 2002, the Erika in 1999, or the Amoco Cadiz in 1978.
8. Littoral, environment, télédétection, géomatique (CNRS/ Universités Nantes, Rennes-II, Brest and Caen).
9. B. Worm et al., “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services,” Science. 314(5800): 787-90. 2006.

Contacts :

> Vincent Renard,
> Frédéric Bouin,
> Nacima Baron-Yelles,
> Philippe Deboudt,
> Louis Brigand,
> Vincent Herbert,
> Bernard Fichaut,
> Jean-Pierre Corlay,
> Louis Marrou,


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