One of largest segments of tidal marsh on the Atlantic Coast — known as the Great Marsh — is receiving the equivalent of an extreme makeover thanks to Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience funding. Like adding support beams to a home’s foundation, this landscape-wide renovation will enhance the ability of salt marsh to withstand future storm surge and sea-level rise, offering added protection for wildlife habitat and coastal communities.
The entire Great Marsh is the largest contiguous salt marsh in New England, stretching from Cape Ann, Massachusetts to New Hampshire. It includes over 20,000 acres of marsh, barrier beach, tidal river, estuary, mudflat, and upland islands extending across the Massachusetts North Shore from Gloucester to Salisbury. On a recent visit to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff discussed the various projects underway at the expansive 3,000-acre portion of the Great Marsh in Newburyport, Mass., adjacent to Plum Island.
The roots of agriculture run deep in northern coastal Massachusetts history. While conducting a tour of the project sites, Nancy Pau, wildlife biologist at Parker River Refuge, points out man-made ditches that dominate the landscape. She explains that as far back as colonial times, salt marshes were heavily ditched by farmers to promote salt marsh haying. More recently, in the last century, they were ditched to control mosquito populations.
“We are basically helping the marsh heal these ditches faster,” Pau says. “These innovative techniques developed by our partners will help to restore hydrology in the salt marsh, resulting in a stronger habitat that offers improved protection to surrounding communities.”
Ditch remediation techniques include use of a hand push mower in the marsh to cut salt hay vegetation. After cutting, the cut hay is raked into the ditches and held in place by baling twine.
Another benefit of the Refuge’s salt marsh restoration project includes controlling large outbreaks of invasive species. Since 2006, hundreds of students and local residents have donated thousands of volunteer hours to fight perennial pepperweed from Gloucester to Salisbury. Groups are focused on pulling or spraying pepperweed and controlling phragmites, two invasive plants that outcompete native salt marsh grasses which help to filter stormwater pollutants, prevent storm damage, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife.
Pau reports that there has been a huge decline of pepperweed in the Great Marsh over the past few years, and welcomes increased funding to eradicate this invasive from much of the Great Marsh.
“What used to be seas of white pepperweed flowers in the marsh are now sparse,” says Pau. “With past funding, we have only been able to treat 60-70 percent of the Great Marsh. With this funding, we’ll be able to treat almost 100 percent.”
Looking ahead, additional Sandy-funded projects will continue to research and apply new techniques that will strengthen and sustain a healthy salt marsh. Another project restores native maritime forest, a dense shrub habitat that provides shelter and food for migratory songbirds. Pau says that maritime shrub and grassland restoration projects are slated for the North Pool field near the North Pool impoundment on the refuge, as well as at Stage and Nelson Islands nearby.
Refuge partners were awarded an additional $2.9 million in Sandy funding in June 2014 through the Department of the Interior, managed by National Wildlife Federation to expand on Refuge funded projects. In addition to expanding invasive species control, the partner project will protect coastal communities along the North Shore of Massachusetts from storms and flooding by strengthening the natural barriers upon which those six communities depend.
These complementary efforts, supported by existing and emerging science to better understand the complex yet elegant nature of this fragile ecosystem, will help strengthen the Great Marsh against future storms and keep it great for the benefit of generations to come.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been working to repair and restore refuges and public lands on the Atlantic coast since Hurricane Sandy impacted them in October of 2012. To learn more about the Service’s ongoing efforts to facilitate habitat recovery and build coastal resilience that helps protect communities, please visit www.fws.gov/hurricane/sandy.