Shoreline Armoring
Shoreline armoring affects more than a quarter of all the shoreline around Puget Sound.
Indicator Lead: Randy Carman, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife,
and Hugh Shipman, Washington State Department of Ecology
Data last updated on February 26, 2014
Photo Credit: Hugh Shipman

Importance to Puget Sound recovery

Puget Sound’s 2,500 miles of shoreline are among the most valuable and fragile of our natural resources. A dynamic area where land and marine ecosystems meet, the shoreline is constantly changing with the action of wind, waves, tides, and erosion. These same shaping forces are also the reason why people often build bulkheads or other structures to harden the shoreline. Indeed, more than 25% of the shoreline has been armored to protect public and private property, ports and marinas, roads and railways, and other uses.

Shoreline armoring, the practice of constructing bulkheads (also known as seawalls) and rock revetments, disrupts the natural process of erosion, which supplies much of the sand and gravel that forms and maintains our beaches. Erosion also creates habitat for herring, surf smelt, salmon, and many other species in Puget Sound. Over time, shoreline armoring may cause once sandy beaches to become rocky and sediment starved, making them inhospitable to many of our native species.

Is there progress? Indicators and targets

What is the indicator?

Although shoreline armoring is one of the indicators that measure the pressures on Puget Sound, rather than a measure of the state of the ecosystem such as the biomass of Pacific herring, it is an important indicator of ecological conditions in Puget Sound.

Shoreline armoring is the most common type of shoreline modification on Puget Sound. Armoring directly alters geologic processes that build and maintain beaches and spits. Bulkheads also impact erosion patterns on nearby beaches, alter beach substrate and hydrology, and reduce the availability of large wood.

These physical changes to beaches can diminish the availability and condition of key shoreline habitats. Armoring can also directly impact organisms and ecological processes by burying or displacing upper beach habitat and altering the natural transition between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Impacts of armoring differ from one coastal setting to another, but have been demonstrated both on Puget Sound and elsewhere to impact habitat for fish, birds, and invertebrates.

Because of these adverse impacts on coastal processes and shoreline habitat, the goal is to decrease the amount of new armoring that occurs on Puget Sound, while also seeking opportunities to reduce armoring where feasible.

As new armoring is being constructed, concurrent efforts are deployed to remove armoring primarily for habitat restoration. Thus, it is the difference between new and removed armoring that is of interest to address the target specifically, reported here as the net amount of shoreline armoring. To reach the target, there has to be a net loss of armoring cumulatively over 2011 to 2020.

Alterations to the shoreline are regulated primarily by two state laws, the Shoreline Management Act and the Hydraulic Code. Under the Hydraulic Code, project proponents seeking a permit for in-water and shoreline construction activities declare the amount of armoring they plan on adding, replacing, or removing in their application. Thus, data reported here were compiled from Hydraulic Project Approvals (HPAs) issued from January 2005 through December 2011by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Projects were identified as:

  1. New (previously unarmored shoreline)
  2. Replacement (complete replacement of existing armoring)
  3. Removals (removal of existing armoring without replacement)

The Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project (PSNERP) has been instrumental in compiling and reporting on changes to shorelines in Puget Sound over the past several decades. We relied on their data to report the length of shoreline and the overall amount of existing shoreline armoring in Puget Sound.

What are the targets?
2020 target

From 2011 to 2020, the total amount of armoring removed should be greater than the total amount of new armoring in Puget Sound (total miles removed is greater than the total miles added).

Interim targets

There currently are no interim targets for this Vital Sign.

Other targets

Part of the 2020 target for shoreline armoring includes a focus on preventing new armoring and reducing existing armoring on feeder bluffs that supply sediments to Puget Sound shorelines. Activities are currently in progress to complete mapping of feeder bluffs in Puget Sound, including the condition of the bluffs. Until the feeder bluff mapping project is completed, it will not be possible to report on the amount of new armoring added or removed on feeder bluffs.

Similar language in the 2020 target refers to the use of soft shore techniques for new and replacement armoring where feasible. Reporting on this metric is currently constrained by the lack of adequate agreement on what constitutes a true soft shore project. Progress is being made to address this issue as part of a design guidance document currently being developed by Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife and a consultant.

Is there progress?

Shoreline Armoring Target Bar

The analysis of current progress is pending due to the ongoing compilation and analysis of 2012 data. However, we can use data from 2005 through 2011 to report on status and trends of shoreline armoring and make some predictions about progress toward reaching the target by 2020.

The amount of new shoreline armoring in Puget Sound was substantially greater than the amount removed for every year from 2005 through 2011(Figure 1 in Latest data and maps). In total, a net amount (new armoring minus removed armoring) of 6.6 miles of new armoring was constructed during this time frame, or on average, 0.94 miles of additional armoring per year. Between 2010 and 2011 alone, a net amount of 4636 feet (0.88 miles) of shoreline armoring was added in Puget Sound. This pattern of added armoring is the opposite of what is needed to meet the 2020 target.

Although there has been a fairly constant increase in removal of armoring since 2005, new construction has remained fairly constant, particularly during the last four years. A notable exception occurred during 2006 and 2007, when new construction was highest, perhaps due to significant storms and shoreline damage that occurred early in the period. Despite this, the general trend of added versus removed armor has shown little movement toward the target in recent years. During 2008 through 2011 the installation of new armoring exceeded removals by a factor of five.

Although more armoring has been removed in recent years (e.g., 2008-2011), it will take significant progress on both: a) decreasing the amount of new armoring and b) increasing the amount of removed armoring to meet the target by 2020. If the trend of adding and removing armoring exhibited by the data for 2005 through 2011 continues, an additional8.5 miles of new armoring will be added to Puget Sound shorelines between 2011 and 2020, making it unlikely that the 2020 target will be met.

Latest data and maps

Puget Sound Shoreline Armoring 2005-2011

A total of 1091 HPAs were issued for shoreline armoring projects in Puget Sound from January 2005 through December 2011. In all years, the amount of new armoring substantially exceeded the amount removed (Figure 1). In 2011, the last year for which data were available, approximately 5666 feet (1.1 miles) of new armoring was installed, 5.5 times more than the amount of armoring removed (1020ft) (Figure 1). Furthermore, the amount of armoring replaced from 2005 to 2011 greatly exceeded either new or removed armoring during every year.

Based on a compilation of a variety of data sources by PSNERP, 27% of the shoreline of Puget Sound is armored (666 miles). Armoring is particularly extensive in highly developed residential, urban, or industrial centers. While most alterations to nearshore areas are heavily regulated, new and replacement shoreline armoring is still relatively commonplace for single-family residences. Single-family residences accounted for 70 percent of the HPA applicants requesting to construct new armoring between 2005 and 2011(Figure 2).

New armoring by application type

Cumulatively, a net total of 6.6 miles of armoring was added in Puget Sound from 2005-2011, or, on average, 0.94 miles of additional armoring per year. Overall, all project applications resulted in 7.4 miles of new shoreline armor, 0.79 miles of armor removal, and 16.2 miles of replacement armor.

There were no statistically significant linear trends in the amount of new or replacement armoring constructed through the seven-year period. However, the amount of removed armoring has increased steadily over the study period, albeit at a very small fraction of new armoring.

Armoring by counties

The total amount of existing shoreline armoring varies considerably across the 12 counties that border Puget Sound. Three counties account for nearly 50% of the total existing armoring in Puget Sound: King (13%), Pierce (18%), and Kitsap (16%) counties. These counties all have a high percentage of their shorelines currently armored: King 73%, Pierce 51%, and Kitsap 43%.

New Shoreline Armoring 2005-2011

However, the HPA data revealed that most of the new armoring constructed between 2005-2011 was concentrated in somewhat different areas (Figures 3 and 5). Mason, Kitsap, and Island counties had the highest percentage of new armoring, comprising 50% of the total. Pierce, San Juan and Skagit counties also accounted for a substantial amount of the new armoring with a combined total of 34%. Therefore, six of the 12 counties in Puget Sound accounted for 84% of the new armoring from 2005 through 2011.

The same dataset indicates that armoring was removed in eight counties from 2005-2011. More armoring was removed in Kitsap County, totaling 2,103 feet (0.4 miles), than in any other county. A combined total of 2098 feet (0.4 miles) was removed among the other seven counties that included King, Pierce, Mason, San Juan, Island, Jefferson and Whatcom. The remaining four counties in Puget Sound did not conduct any armor removal projects during the same time period.

The type of applicant that conducts new or armor removal projects was also compiled from the HPA data for years 2005-2011. Not surprisingly, most new armoring in Puget Sound (70%) was constructed on single-family residence properties (Figure 3). In contrast, armor removal projects were primarily conducted on government properties (68%), whereas only 18% of the removals were on single-family residential properties (Figure 4).

Armoring removal by application group

New shoreline armoring distribution by county 2005-2010

What you can do

  1. Minimize shoreline alterations to preserve natural shoreline conditions.
  2. Talk to a representative in your local city or county planning office about local laws and regulations and the potential impact on habitat, if you are considering building any structures aimed at preventing erosion on shoreline properties.
  3. Consider using soft shore techniques such as large wood or gravel berms to provide wave protection, planting native vegetation and installing adequate drainage to stabilize slopes.

What our partners are doing

View Near Term Actions helping to advance this Vital Sign

Links for more information

Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife:  Protecting Nearshore Habitat and Functions in Puget Sound

Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife:  Marine Beach Spawning Fish Ecology

Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project

Department of Ecology's Puget Sound Shorelines

Department of Ecology's Shoreline armoring fact sheet: Healthy shorelines equal a healthy Puget Sound

Department of Ecology's Shoreline armoring fact sheet: Marine Shoreline Armoring and Puget Sound