Category Archives: Wetlands

Restoring hope in the Chesapeake Bay

John Smith, Jacques Cousteau, Rachel Carson. People have long recognized the significance of the Chesapeake Bay: it is the largest estuary in the nation, a corridor for migrating American shad and striped bass, a nursery for juvenile fish and blue crab, and the birthplace of Old Bay Seasoning.

In the early 1980s, people also recognized that pollution and mismanagement were having a significant impact on this system. The underwater grasses that provide oxygen, absorb nutrients, and feed and shelter fish were becoming sparse; populations of crab, shad, and bass were plummeting; there wasn’t much for Old Bay to season anymore.

In response, Congress appropriated funding to create the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership that has led collaborative restoration and protection efforts in the watershed since 1983, and has gradually been moving the needle in the right direction for the fish, wildlife, and people who depend upon this system. Remember those sparse underwater grasses? They have increased in abundance by about 125 percent in the past 40 years.

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Underwater grasses play a vital role in the health of the bay — providing oxygen, absorbing excess nutrients, trapping sediment, and sheltering the iconic blue crab. Photo: FWS

This week partners have been commemorating such restoration milestones in events throughout the watershed as part of the 3rd annual Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week, and now they have something new to celebrate. On May 30th, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) released a draft plan developed with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and states to help partners in the Chesapeake identify the most strategic places for cross-cutting restoration actions to support the long-term health of the watershed.

Places like Tangier Sound, Mobjack Bay, and the Choptank River, which caught Chris Guy’s attention because it flows through his home state of Maryland before draining into the Bay.

“The Choptank came out as a priority, and now the Corps is identifying sites in the tributaries where they can say: If all you have is $1 for restoration, that’s where you want to spend it,” said Guy, Branch Chief for Conservation Planning and Assistance at the Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office.

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The Choptank River, the longest on the Delmarva peninsula, is one of the places that was identified as a priority area for restoring tidal wetlands. Photo: NOAA

Those investments are backed by more than 200 stakeholders who contributed to the plan, including representatives from every Service field office and state wildlife agency encompassed within the watershed.

“We focused on identifying places where partners could get the most habitat restoration and conservation benefits based on the goals and outcomes outlined in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Agreement,” explained Alicia Logalbo, Chief of the Norfolk District’s Environmental Analysis Section for the Corps, who coordinated the development of the plan.

The Bay Program created the 2014 agreement as a way of tracking progress in the restoration effort. It focuses on 10 overarching goals related to biodiversity, clean water, climate resiliency, conservation, and community engagement. Given that those goals can be approached through a multitude of different sites, actions, and initiatives, the fundamental question became, where are the best places to start?

“There are many restoration opportunities, but we wanted to get that down to a manageable amount and also identify those opportunities that optimize multiple Bay Agreement goals and outcomes,” said Logalbo. “We wanted to take those broad goals and opportunities and put them on the map.”

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The Service’s restoration priorities focus on supporting fish and wildlife throughout their ranges. For example, identifying aquatic barriers for American eel, which must migrate to from freshwater to the ocean to spawn. Photo: FWS

As the Service’s liaison to the Corps, Guy explained, “My role was to communicate what is important to U.S. Fish & Wildlife.” Naturally, fish and wildlife were a top priority — “endangered species, species of concern, migratory birds” — but so were landscape characteristics that can support species throughout their ranges, like aquatic connectivity. “We want to be able to say this culvert in this stream is blocking eels,” said Guy.

The Corps synthesized and analyzed information from the Service and states to understand what partners wanted to sustain at what level, and what threats or barriers were keeping that from happening. But there were still some gaps in the data, so they turned to Nature’s Network — a collaborative effort to identify the best opportunities for conserving and connecting intact habitats and ecosystems across the entire 13-state Northeast region.

“We looked at lot of factors for prioritization in the watershed, like development threats and stream restoration potential, but we wanted to be able to optimize for wildlife,” said Logalbo.

The imperiled species layer from Nature’s Network offered spatially explicit information about the location of the most important habitat for fish and wildlife species, and the connectivity analysis helped them understand how to ensure that habitat could be fully utilized as part of functioning network.

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Bog turtle is considered imperiled in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and is one of thousands of species whose habitat needs are incorporated into Nature’s Network. Photo: FWS

“I think regional information really helps you focus,” she said, “You can fine tune it with local information or field visits, but regional perspective gives you the broad brush to optimize, and then zoom into important areas you can verify.”

Areas like the Choptank, where the plan has already started a conservation dialogue.

After the river emerged as important in the analysis, the Corps approached Guy for his perspective on reviving a number of projects that had been identified in the Choptank years ago, but had fallen by the wayside.

“They asked, are these still good projects? Which ones would you like to see happen?” said Guy.

More than just suggesting the best starting places for restoration, the plan is already providing a vehicle for moving forward.

The Chesapeake Bay draft Comprehensive Plan and Restoration Roadmap is now available for public review on the USACE website.

Wetland Wonder

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Click image for full story (Photo: Kayt Jonsson, USFWS)

By Megan Lang

For many a growing season, Matt and Marilyn Spong thought of the wetland on their farm as a problem spot. Year after year, crops they planted there would either fail completely or produce a smaller yield then the rest of the farm.

But rather than abandoning the area altogether, the Spongs got creative: with the help of the Service, Matt and Marilyn transformed their wet spot back into a natural wetland, creating new habitat for dozens of species.

For decades, wetlands in the U.S. have been in decline. A study in the 1980s found that the country had lost an area of wetlands twice the size of New Jersey from 1950 to 1970, restricting habitat for species like migratory birds that rely on wetlands to make their yearly migration. It’s only in recent years that conservation groups like the Service and its partners have been able to reverse that decline, and it’s only worked with the help of private landowners like the Spongs.

And the results, they say, have been worth much more than the crops that would never quite thrive.

“We see a whole lot more shorebirds and water turtles now, and we also see bald eagles that we rarely saw before the wetland was restored,” Matt said.

Click here to read the full story


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Two Canada geese coming in for a landing over the restored wetland (Photo: Kayt Jonsson, USFWS)

The Spongs’ story is featured in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Nature’s Good Neighbors series, which highlights people across the U.S. who depend on the land as much as the land depends on them. These modern-day stewards of the land are working with nature to make a home for people and wildlife.

A Sweet Solution to a Sticky Problem

When you’re a biologist at a site named for a legendary environmentalist, you feel a responsibility to do your job with the planet in mind.

Just ask Dr. Susan Adamowicz, Land Management Research and Demonstration Area biologist for the Northeast Region of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Stationed at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, she is tasked with finding innovative ways to manage wildlife habitat and takes inspiration from the renowned author.

In 1962’s Silent Spring, Carson, who also worked for the Service, sounded the alarm about pesticides that imperiled wildlife and people alike. She knew that many of the synthetic chemicals used to control unwanted plants and insects were dangerous to more than their targets.

For a healthy environment, Adamowicz seeks other solutions … and hopes she has found one with the help of a University of New Hampshire researcher.

A “Consummate Invasive Species”

Phragmites australis, or common reed, is an aggressive, nonnative marsh grass that pushes out native wetland plants. You’ve probably noticed its tall (up to 18 feet!), feathery, golden stalks in your neighborhood or along the freeway.

Phragmites is plentiful in the high salt marsh of the Great Marsh, the largest continuous stretch of salt marsh in New England. Three thousand acres of the 20,000-acre marsh in eastern Massachusetts lie within Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

Phragmites changes the structure of the salt marsh, filling natural channels and tidal pools where waterbirds, fish, and invertebrates find food and safety. Many wildlife species find its dense patches impassable, and in the fall, when the stalks die back, stands of the plant turn to tinderboxes primed for wildfire, putting nearby homes and businesses at risk.

Biologists have long searched for effective ways to control Phragmites. It’s a determined adversary, however. Like those birthday candles that re-ignite, just when it seems defeated, it springs back to life.

According to Adamowicz, “Phragmites is the consummate invasive species. If you cut it or burn it, it comes back. If you can flood it for six months, that might kill it, but flooding is not always feasible.”

Phragmites grows along a marsh at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island. (Credit: Tom Sturm, USFWS)

While restoring natural tidal flow to coastal marshes is the preferred way to fight Phragmites,  replacing culverts, filling ditches, and improving drainage can take a long time. Treating it directly is necessary to keep it in check in the meantime.

Sadly, there’s been no good way to do that. Herbicides work in certain locations but pose a risk to native vegetation and groundwater — certainly not a solution Rachel Carson would embrace.

So Adamowicz teamed up with Dr. David Burdick, research associate professor and interim director of the Jackson Estuarine Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, to explore innovative ways to control Phragmites. One of the methods they tested was sweet and simple.

Turning the Tables

Burdick had a hunch that sugar, the same kind you put in your coffee, might be Phragmites’ Kryptonite.

Dr. David Burdick takes notes at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: Gregg Moore, UNH)

Each summer, rising air temperatures and increased plant growth stimulate bacteria in salt marsh soils to convert organic matter and oxygen into carbon dioxide, water, and energy — a process called aerobic (“with air”) respiration. The activity quickly uses up soil oxygen, forcing other groups of bacteria to make energy using anaerobic (“without air”) respiration.

One by-product of anaerobic respiration is hydrogen sulfide gas, a potent toxin for plants as well as people. At typical levels, the gas is not deadly to most native plants, but it can be toxic to Phragmites.

Burdick thought increasing bacterial respiration, and therefore hydrogen sulfide levels, could kill the invasive.

“Because Phragmites is a master at getting oxygen to its roots for its own respiration, we could use this strength to kill it,” he mused. “By elevating soil hydrogen sulfide levels, we might stimulate the plant to oxidize the gas into a strong acid that it may not be able to tolerate.”

While he couldn’t control air temperatures, he could increase fuel for the bacteria — using glucose in the form of table sugar.

Pour Some Sugar on It

Burdick and his team first tested their idea in the greenhouse. They soaked Phragmites plants with bay water for three hours every two weeks to mimic the flooding that high-marsh plants get during the extra-high “spring” tides that come with the full and new moons each month.

Some plants (the control) received only the bay water; others got water with table sugar; still others water with extra salt; and the remaining, water with sugar and salt.

In the greenhouse study, plants receiving sugar or sugar-plus-salt (right, top and bottom) showed clear signs of distress within weeks of treatment. (Credit: Gregg Moore, UNH)

Both the sugar and sugar-and-salt treatments showed signs of stress within weeks and eventually died. Only the plants that received plain bay water or bay water with added salt lived.

The sugar-treated plants had very high soil acidity, possibly caused by sulfuric acid, the product of hydrogen sulfide oxidation. This supported Burdick’s theory.

Next, Burdick and Adamowicz headed to Parker River Refuge to set up a field study in the northern part of the Great Marsh. The research was supported by federal funds for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience projects.

Following the greenhouse trial, Burdick and his team tested the treatments in the Great Marsh at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: Gregg Moore, UNH)

They isolated individual Phragmites plants and applied the same treatments as in the greenhouse. Sugar and salt were put on the plants every two weeks, after the spring tides flooded the marsh.

The plants that got sugar had far greater mortality than the other treatments, even with uncontrollable environmental factors, such as rain — a clear sign that sugar is not sweet to Phragmites.

Refining the Technique

Adamowicz is pleased with the study results so far and eager to set up more field trials. She’s exploring ways to treat Phragmites with sugar and salt more efficiently and broadly, perhaps using a backpack sprayer to apply corn syrup at more-frequent intervals than every two weeks.

“This is another tool in our toolbox, and it’s nontoxic to wildlife, which is very desirable,” she said. “The more complicated response to Phragmites is ecosystem restoration, but in the meantime, we need a fast-acting tool to help native plants come back and buy time.”

If Rachel Carson were alive today, she would certainly approve of this environmentally sound method — and just might be thinking, “Sweet!”