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Shoreline Habitats

What are they?

Habitats that occur where the land and the river meet are shoreline or shore zone habitats. Shorelines occur in their natural state or have been changed by humans to protect against erosion and flooding and accommodate water dependent uses such as fishing and shipping. In the Hudson, natural shorelines vary from small beaches of sand or gravel to steep rocky cliffs. The vegetation along the shore can vary from trees and shrubs to landscaped lawns on the landward side to fringing wetlands and submerged aquatic vegetation on the water side.

Timber cribbing
Degraded timber cribbing protects a
tidal marsh

Typical examples of engineered shorelines are:

  • Bulkheads, vertical structures made of steel, concrete or wood
  • Revetment, sloping structures that armor the shore slope or bank and made of rock, rip-rap, solid concrete or interlocking blocks
  • Timber cribbing, box-like arrangement of interlocking logs or timbers used to form a "crib", which is then filled with broken rock

Shoreline managers are recommending that engineered shorelines add complexity to their designs to enhance the habitat value, by adding vegetation, different materials and surface roughness, minimizing vertical slopes and avoiding long straight stretches. Complexity usually supports more species and ecological functions than more simple designs.

For additional explanations of shorelines types and other shoreline related terms, download the Terminology for the Hudson River Sustainable Shorelines Project (PDF, 1.2 MB).

Why are they important?

Shore zones are vital habitat for multiple life stages of many fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. Different shore zones provide different kinds and levels of habitat, and when aggregated, can significantly influence life in the Hudson River ecosystem. Organic matter that is washed onto shore, or "wrack," is an important component of shoreline ecosystems, providing habitat for invertebrates and soil and organic matter and nutrients to both the upland terrestrial communities and aquatic ecosystem.

Shore zones are also vitally important to humans. Since the beginning of civilization shore zones have been used for transportation; agriculture; a source of water; waste disposal; a place to harvest plants, animals, and geologic resources; recreation; aesthetic and spiritual inspiration; and desirable sites to build homes, businesses, and factories.

Healthy shore zones provide many benefits: habitat for many species, recreation and harvestable resources for people, high plant production that provides food for animals on the land and in the water, capture of nutrients and toxins from the land, absorption of wave energy, improvement of water quality, and pathways for plants and animals to disperse or move.

Where are they?

Ice and woody debris along a vegetated shoreline
Ice and woody debris along a vegetated shoreline

The shoreline by definition is the edge of the River; there are more than 300 miles of shoreline, along the Hudson and its tidal tributaries. When you visit the shoreline, it will look different depending on the tidal cycle and the time of year, from low tide in summer which may expose mudflats to high tide in winter with large chunks of ice.

Take a train ride along the Hudson between Albany and New York to see many types of natural shoreline, from the steep columnar basalts of the Palisades to the beaches on the Tappan Zee to the wetlands of Iona Island and Tivoli Bays. You will see a variety of man-made shorelines on your trip also, since 41% of Hudson shoreline is engineered, including 29% which is the railroad! About 47% of the river has natural shoreline and 12% is degrading engineered structures.

Visit some shoreline restoration projects which, though engineered, have features which enhance the health of the ecosystem. Sites include State Park's Coxsackie Boat Launch, Scenic Hudson's Esopus Meadows and Westchester County's Habirshaw Park. Learn more at the Demonstration Site Network website in the "Links Leaving DEC's website" on the right sidebar.

How are they changing?

Changes in shoreline are imminent as old structures become unstable, public and private agencies invest in waterfront revitalization and development pressure continues along the shoreline. Climate change imposes new stresses on the shoreline. Scientists project that sea level in the Hudson will rise by 1-2 feet (and perhaps more than 4 feet) by the year 2100. This will cause coastal shorelines to move inland, and flood more frequently and severely. Climate change will challenge us to maintain human infrastructure and uses of shore zones without further damaging their ecological function. Because the infrastructure that we build lasts for decades or more, we need to plan for these changes now.

How are we conserving them?

Vegetated shoreline
Vegetated shoreline with woody debris on
a gravelly beach

The Hudson River Sustainable Shorelines Project is a collaborative effort between the NYSDEC and local science and state organizations to provide science-based information on the ecological, economic, and engineering questions facing shoreline habitats in a changing environment. Visit the project's full website in the "Links Leaving DEC's Website" on the right sidebar for more information.

You can help conserve the ecology of shorelines by being aware of what makes them healthy and applying these principles on your own property or encouraging your municipalities to do so. For example, slopes are better than vertical, messy is better than tidy: wrack should be left on the shore, complex is better than simple, soft is better than hard: vegetation and gravel rather than barren steel.