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Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Wise practices for coping with beach erosion: Montserrat

Fisheries Division, Montserrat
Physical Planning Department, Montserrat
University of Puerto Rico, Sea Grant College Program
Caribbean Development Bank
UNESCO Environment and Development in Coastal Regions and in Small Islands


Beaches are continuously changing – from day to day, month to month and year to year – as the natural forces of wind and water meet the land. These changes, which have been taking place for millions of years, are linked to variations in wind, waves, currents and sea level height.

But it is not just natural forces that change the beach, humans have a big role to play in this process as well, through mining stones and sand from the beaches, polluting and damaging coral reefs, and constructing buildings and walls too close to the sea.

Changes in the beaches affect everyone. The coast is a place we are all attracted to for recreation, sports and simple enjoyment. This constantly changing and hazard-prone coastal environment is also where important infrastructure (roads, ports, buildings) is concentrated. Especially in Montserrat, where the recent volcanic activity has rendered so much of the island unsafe for living, the state of its beaches is of major importance.

Natural forces  

  • Hurricanes and tropical storms, occurring between June and November, cause dramatic beach changes usually resulting in serious beach erosion.
  • High waves in winter resulting from storms in the North Atlantic Ocean, and known as swell waves, or locally as ‘groundseas’.
  • Sea-level rise, which is a long-term factor, taking place very slowly over decades causes shorelines to retreat inland.  

Since 1995, the Atlantic Basin (including the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico) has entered a more active hurricane cycle, which may continue for more than 20 years.  

Hurricane frequency between 1990 and 1999 in the Atlantic Basin

Source: Gray et al. http://typhoon.atmos.colostate.edu/forecasts/1999/nov99/ 

In the Atlantic Basin the number of really severe hurricanes (categories 3, 4 and 5) increased from one per year (1990 –1994) to four per year (1995 – 1999).

Human forces

Mining sand 
destabilises the 
beach and 
damages turtle
nests, Sturge 
Park, 1988

  • Removing sand from beaches and adjacent areas for construction purposes causes erosion and the loss of beaches and coastal lands, destroying the natural heritage of the coast and reducing the vibrancy of the tourism industry.
  • Building too close to the beach interferes with the natural sand movement and may impede beach recovery after a serious storm or hurricane.
  • Badly planned sea defences may cause the loss of the beach, and of neighbouring beaches.
  • Pollution from human activities on the land may damage coral reefs and seagrass beds; these biological systems protect, and provide sand to the beaches.
  • Removing vegetation from coastal areas destabilises beaches; and clearing sites inland results in increased soil and dirt particles being washed offshore and smothering coral reef systems.



Beach monitoring
in progress at
Little Bay, 1999


In order to manage these changes, Montserrat’s beaches have been monitored since 1990 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Land, Housing and the Environment, and more recently by the Fisheries Division. They measure the beach slope and width every three months at several sites around the island. During the volcanic emergency, 1995-1998, monitoring was interrupted, but recommenced in 1999.

Location of monitored beaches in Montserrat

Little Bay, 1990   



When Hurricane Luis struck in 1995, much of the beach was lost at Fox’s Bay on the west coast and at other beaches. In the months and years after the hurricane, the beaches recovered to some extent, but were further impacted by Hurricane Georges in 1998, and Hurricane Lenny in 1999.

Fox's Bay, Montserrat. Beach erosion

Fox's Bay, 1999,
before Hurricanes Luis            

Fox's Bay, 1999,
after the impact of
Hurricanes Luis, 1995,
Georges, 1998,
and Lenny, 1999



Montserrat has been impacted by several serious hurricanes in the past 25 years: David in 1979, Hugo in 1989, Luis in 1995, Georges in 1998 and Lenny in 1999. These resulted in serious damage to the beach and coastal environment as well as man-made infrastructure.

collection area for 
sheeting after 
Hurricane Hugo

Abandoned snackette at Fox’s Bay after
Hurricane Lenny, 1999

Road damage at
Carr’s Bay after
Hurricane Georges,



The foundations of 
this house at Carr’s 
Bay were
out during 
Hurricane Georges, 



The table shows generalized rates of change at the measured beaches in Montserrat between 1990 and 1996. During this period most of the beaches showed erosion, a result, at least in part, of the impact of several severe hurricanes. However, most beaches in Montserrat show erosion along one part of the beach and accretion (or build-up) at adjacent sections, thus these figures must be treated as average trends.

Beach change rates in Montserrat (metres per year)

A negative rate of change () indicates erosion and retreat of the shoreline, a positive 
rate of change (
) indicates accretion or advancement of the shoreline towards the sea


Measuring the
sand loss at 
Bunkum Bay in 
1990 after
Hurricane Hugo

Many of Montserrat’s west coast beaches are
sandy in the summer months but covered with 
stones in the winter months, as seen here at 
Bunkum Bay, 1995




Seagrape trees,
 such as seen 
here at Fox’s Bay
in 1994, help to
stabilise the sand
as well as 
providing shade


The state of the beach affects everyone’s lives. Montserrat faces special problems as it rebuilds its infrastructure after the volcanic activity, especially since only a few beaches are accessible in the ‘safe’ zone. There are no simple or universal solutions to shoreline erosion, since there are often several factors, both human and natural, contributing to the problem at a particular beach. Each beach behaves differently, so it is advisable to find out as much information as possible about a particular beach before taking any corrective action. It is necessary to consult the Ministry of Agriculture before undertaking any action at a beach.

Some forces of change, such as hurricanes and winter swells are natural, and there is little we can do to stop them, yet there are ways we can help to slow down the rate of erosion: 

  • Planning new development so that it is a ‘safe’ distance behind the beach will reduce the need for expensive sea defence measures in the future.

  • Revegetating beach areas beyond the reach of storm waves, and other coastal areas, with native vegetation, e.g. grasses, vines and salt resistant, deep-rooting trees, such as sea-grape.


Ensuring new
development is a
‘safe’ distance
from the dynamic
beach zone, helps
conserve the
beach and
the buildings



Buildings close to the beach are vulnerable to erosion

Buildings at a safedistance from the beach are less 
vulnerable to erosion

Rock revetments, as here in Plymouth in 1981, 
protect roads and buildings from wave action, but
they do not promote beach build-up


  • Resorting to ‘hard’ engineering structures such as seawalls, revetments and bulkheads, only when there is a need to protect beachfront property from wave action. Such structures, even with careful design, result in the loss or narrowing of the beach over time.
  • Considering all other beach enhancement measures such as offshore breakwaters, groynes and beach nourishment (placing sand from the offshore zone or from an inland source on the beach) at a particular site. All such measures require careful design and environmental impact assessments, so always first consult the Ministry of Agriculture.  


Groynes, such
as seen here at
Sugar Bay in 
1989, result in
sand build-up on 
one side, but
erosion on the
other side

One of the
facing Montserrat
is to find uses for
the recently
volcanic material,
seen here in the
Belham Valley,

…So that beautiful beaches such as Iles Bay 
(1999) can be conserved and wisely managed


Plan for existing and future coastline change by positioning all new development (large and small) a ‘safe’ distance landward of the vegetation line (consult the Physical Planning Department for information on ‘safe’ distances).  
Review and carefully consider ALL options when planning ways to slow down the rate of coastline change, these should include planning, ecological and engineering measures.
Continue to monitor the rate of coastline change and share the findings with all other stakeholders.

Coordinate an integrated approach to beach management, by ensuring that individuals, the general public, governmental and non-governmental agencies are involved and work together.

Promote the concept of coastal stewardship and the importance of conserving Montserrat's remaining beaches for the social benefit of its residents, as well as its growing tourism industry.

Respect the rights of all beach users.

Stop the unsustainable practice of mining sand and stones from the remaining beaches in the safe zone, and utilise alternative sources of construction material.

Provide for public access to all beaches in the safe zone, and where appropriate provide facilities for beach users (e.g. parking, safety measures, sanitary facilities).

Carefully manage those beaches which are important turtle nesting sites.
Conserve and restore vegetative cover, both adjacent to the beach in order to stabilise the sand, and further inland to reduce sediment reaching the reefs and seagrass beds.


For more information on shoreline 
change in

Fisheries Division
Ministry of Agriculture, Land,
Housing and Environment
PO Box 272, Brades, Montserrat
T: +1 664 491 2546
F: +1 664 491 9275
E: mnifish@candw.ag

Physical Planning Department
PO Box 272, Brades, Montserrat
T: +1 664 491 6795
F: +1 664 491 5655
E: greenawayf@candw.ag

For more information on shoreline 
change in the
CARIBBEAN consult:

Coping with Beach Erosion
by Gillian Cambers
UNESCO Publishing, 1998
ISBN 93-3-103561-4  


This booklet is a result of 
co-operation between UNESCO, 
the Caribbean  Development 
Bank and Montserrat's  
Governmental agencies  

Illustrations: Barbara Navi – Photographs: Gillian Cambers – Design: Eric Loddé

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