Conserve Wildlife Blog

A Summer at the Beach: Protecting Seabeach Amaranth

September 8th, 2021

by Sherry Tirgrath, Assistant Biologist

Seabeach Amaranth, a state endangered/federally threatened beach plant.

Most people would enjoy their summer days being spent on the beach. Long, sunny days listening to crashing waves and shorebird calls with a salty breeze blowing gently across your face – sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be awesome to experience that nearly every day of the summer? Well, that’s been my life since early June of 2021. I am a new recruit of Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, and when I was offered to take on the role of rare plant technician, surveying Seabeach Amaranth and other protected shore plants along the Jersey coast, I jumped on the opportunity.

Now to give everyone a little background on Seabeach Amaranth before I continue – this federally threatened and state endangered beach plant is an annual bloomer, growing low and branching out along the ground, sometimes reaching up to a meter in diameter or more. However, many plants remain relatively small and some may never grow more than a few centimeters across. Larger plants produce more seeds, and therefore are more successful at propagating the species. It has red stems and thick, waxy, greenish-red leaves that are somewhat reminiscent of spinach. In mid to late summer, these plants produce tiny pale-yellow flowers in the center of leaf clusters at the tip of each stem. These flowers contain the seeds that will hopefully go on to produce next year’s amaranth. The seeds are dispersed in a variety of ways. They may drop near the “parent” and remain relatively close to where plants have germinated in previous years. Some may be carried by wind as sand is blown along the beach. Rising tides may wash out seeds, as well, sometimes redistributing them on the shore in what are known as “wrack lines.” Wrack lines contain the debris left behind by the high tides, typically consisting of sea grass, shells and human litter. Amaranth is often found growing in them.

Fence to protect Seabeach Amaranth being erected by Sherry Tirgrath, the author.

Seabeach Amaranth does not like competition with other species. It usually will not fare well growing in densely vegetated areas where other plants are sharing nutrients in the sand. It is also very fragile. Predation by deer and webworm, trampling by people and being crushed by beach cleaning rakes and other vehicles are its greatest threats. In order to protect amaranth from human destruction, we erect fencing with signage around plants we find to warn people away from these restricted areas. I was tasked with surveying and protecting amaranth and other rare shore plants this summer.

The beginning of this project was a bit slow-going. Surveying in early June was not always fruitful. Most plants had not yet germinated or were very small (less than 0.5cm) and difficult to spot. It’s a diligent process walking many miles along the beach, seeking out these tiny seedlings, but within a month’s time, the bounty had exploded. When amaranth was found, surveying included measuring the diameter of the plant (in centimeters), recording its location in latitude/longitude and assessing it for any damage. This information was then added to a datasheet for later reference. The data we collected were shared with our state and federal partners and used to gauge the success of our project to protect these rare species and assist in their recovery.

This summer, we surveyed and protected about 800 plants at 25 sites in New Jersey. Although less plants were found than in 2020, there was a general increase in plant size, especially at our more prosperous sites. In addition to healthier plants, this year, amaranth has been found at multiple new sites for the first time since surveys started in 2001 and is more widely distributed along the coast than ever before. The success we’ve had over recent years does not mean our efforts to protect the species can be lessened in the future. Seabeach Amaranth still faces many obstacles, such as increased beach erosion, sand raking, displacement by invasive species, and other habitat destruction. Amaranth is indicative of a healthy beach ecosystem and its gradual recovery here in New Jersey is something to celebrate, but cautiously, as it is far from out of the woods yet.

Measuring and recording the location of Seabeach Amaranth during a rare plant survey.

While erecting fencing, I have met many curious beachgoers who want to know more about the amaranth project and the plant itself. I enjoyed taking the time to chat, share this information with the public and be the friendly face behind the mysterious fences popping up along the Jersey coast. Our intent to protect amaranth faces difficulties and backlash, as well. It’s disheartening to come across those that believe our fences are visually unappealing and unnecessary. As biologists, we do our best to educate the public on the importance of rare species protection, but it sometimes falls on deaf ears. Unfortunately, we’ve had some of our fences vandalized, plants destroyed, prohibited areas trespassed on and walked across. However, this does not mitigate nor impede our efforts. The Seabeach Amaranth recovery project will continue for years to come, until populations are stable and capable of thriving without human assistance. We, at Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, hope the public will rally behind us and cooperate in helping this fragile plant species bounce back.

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