A new survey has found most New Zealanders are worried about the future of our beaches, with storm surges, degradation of sand dunes, coastline development, sand mining and climate change putting their survival at risk.

The Coastal Restoration Trust's survey of 1775 people, conducted by Horizon Research, found that almost two-thirds of Kiwis believed beach erosion was worse than it was 20 years ago, and most were worried that some New Zealand beaches might vanish forever.

Trust spokesman Tim Park said that, in many cases, New Zealand's beaches were paying the price for overwhelming public popularity.

"We're loving our beaches to death. We're driving on them, building sea walls that change beach dynamics and sand movement, developing beachfront property virtually right on top on them," he said.

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"We're shaping and managing our beaches to fit what people want and expect from them, rather than understanding and working with natural processes that are best for healthy, resilient beaches.

"If we can work with nature, rather than against it, everyone benefits. It's vitally important, because some beaches are already under enormous pressure and are at risk of disappearing.

"Once a beach is gone, it's gone for good."

Mr Park said while many people saw erosion as a big issue for New Zealand's coasts, research showed beaches could recover if coastal ecosystems - particularly sandy dunes - were in a healthy, functioning state.

"In many situations we can manage issues more sustainably through 'soft' options that give beaches the space they need to breathe. Sand dunes are a perfect example. Not only are they a buffer against storm surges and even the potential of tsunamis, dunes play a vital role in the natural transit and accretion of sand, which is what helps keep a beach ecosystem healthy.

"We tend to overlook just how important sand is and why we need to look after it."

Giving beaches more breathing space also meant taking a new look at how property development on our coastlines was managed.

"It's natural for us to want to live as close to the beach as possible, but in many places we've simply gotten too close," said Mr Park.

"Rather than trying to fight what's a losing battle by building sea walls, or dumping loads of boulders, 'setback' (planning development further back from beaches to prevent the loss of dunes/houses completely in large storm events) is best. It's also far more cost-effective to look after sand and restore dunes by planting native sand-binding vegetation, for example, at a fraction of the cost of seawalls, which don't last long-term and often just shift problems somewhere else."

The trust's holistic approach to coastal management had led it to change its name from the Dune Restoration Trust to the Coastal Restoration Trust, said Mr Park.

"It's recognising that our coasts are part of an inter-connected system. It's not one thing or another but a whole range of factors that shape our coastlines, and the survey shows more Kiwis are getting that."

LIFE'S A BEACH: KEY SURVEY FINDINGS

•New Zealanders plan to go to the beach for an average of 13.6 days this summer

•50 per cent say they have seen the effects of erosion at beaches in New Zealand; more than 60 per cent say beaches are more eroded now than 20 years ago

•77 per cent are concerned about the effect erosion may have on the future quality of New Zealand beaches; 28 per cent are very concerned

•Respondents rated "storm surges" as the major cause of beach erosion, followed by "degradation of sand dunes", "development on coastlines", "commercial sand mining" and "global warming/climate change"