Of Marshes and Wetlands: A World of Interdependence

This week’s blog was written by Emma C., a Bucktails alumni. Emma is an avid student, ballet dancer, and nature lover. When not at dance or school, she enjoys hiking, photography, painting, watching musicals and movies, learning interesting histories, and especially reading. She is particularly interested in science at this time, advancing to the state science fair last year. She was extremely excited to attend the Academy because as she puts it, nature is her, “safe place” where she feels at home. Her favorite quote is by the brilliant scientist Rachel Carson, “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?'”

If you have ever been to Maine, you have undoubtedly been dazzled by the amazing wildlife and ecosystems found in the secluded state. I had the opportunity to visit the New England beauty for the first time this fall and was blown away by the magnificent scenery. Perhaps my favorite spot was at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. With a rather demure and hidden entrance, the refuge does not seem that extraordinary at first glance. Even when first beginning one of the refuge’s trails, many of the unique aspects of this environment are hidden. The hike starts out in what appears to be a typical deciduous and temperate forest, with no water in sight. However, as the trail continues, a new beauty is revealed. From breaks in the trees at wooden outlook posts, sparkling wetlands abound. They seem to stretch endlessly to the right and left, and in the distance you can view the thin outline of the sea. Small landmasses of grass peek out from intermittent bands of water. The sun, high and bright in the sky, cast a brilliant spotlight on the many animals and particularly birds found in this ecosystem as they aptly reveal the truth of Carson’s words immortalized on a trail plaque, “… all the life of the planet is interrelated… each species has its own ties to others, and… all are related to the earth.” The interrelated species and topography here create an unusual, but oddly calming smell of salt, grass, and leaves that fills the air, while a soft breeze from the ocean constantly ruffles the tall grasses. Established in 1966, the refuge covering 50 miles of Maine coastline strives to protect valuable salt marshes and estuaries, and it is not hard to see why.

Salt marshes are a type of coastal wetland. They consist of areas of large grasses dispersed throughout pockets of water. This ecosystem resides in low-lying areas of open plains, and due to its connection to the sea is characterized by regular tidal flooding. Salt marshes have an extremely fertile food web, that rivals that of mid-western farming. They produce an incredible amount of biomass that is relied upon for food, shelter, and spawning by a diverse group of organisms including birds, mammals, finfish, and shellfish. Specialized plants specific to this habitat form the basis of this exponential production and are a rare sight that can survive in little other places.

Side view of the salt marshes at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Wells, ME.

In addition to the incredible habitat salt marshes provide, they also serve as a brilliant decontaminator. Salt marshes filter many pollutants including excess nutrients, sediments, and toxic contaminants from human activities. This limits the effects these pollutants have on humans, animals, and other ecosystems. For example, the excess nutrients absorbed by the marsh limits the possibility of algae blooms in coastal waters. Going along with this helpful property, the sediment absorbed by the marsh builds up over time maintaining its height at sea level, causing this ecosystem to be a great source of erosion control and protection from storm surges. They also provide this service by absorbing floodwater, and then slowly releasing this excess water over time limiting its impact. Overall, salt marshes are regulators for the environment, keeping other ecosystems healthy, as well as providing safety for humans.

Tall grasses cover the salt marshes at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Wells, ME.

Speaking of humans, salt marshes provide many valuable services for us. Salt marshes are extremely important for commercial fishing. Two-thirds of commercially valuable bait worms, fish, and shellfish use these marshes at some point during their lifetime. The health of these wetlands is tied directly to the livelihoods of many who make their living from the sea. These marshes also add great aesthetic beauty to landscapes, and can actually increase the property values of nearby communities. In addition, they serve as a plentiful source of recreation, providing a site for hunting, fishing, clamming, boating, and bird-watching. Finally, the great ecological diversity of this ecosystem makes it an ideal educational spot and field trip location.

The sea lays just beyond the salt marshes at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Wells, ME.

Despite the importance and obvious benefits of salt marshes, this ecosystem has been consistently destroyed and degraded over time. Once viewed as a valuable natural resource, it was during the industrialization of the 19th century that public opinion regarding these areas began to change. They were instead viewed as gross, swampy areas that caused disease to fester, and arrested development. Due to these views, salt marshes were filled to be used as trash dumps, drained to be used for agricultural lands, blocked from the ocean by roads, and damaged or destroyed to make way for residential and commercial development. These assaults on the wetlands have significantly decreased the water quality of these areas leading to dramatic reductions in finfish and bird populations. They have also lowered the wetlands’ ability to curb erosion and flooding, as well as let invasive species take over these areas, limiting biodiversity.

A panorama of the salt marshes at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Wells, ME.

Although today dredging or filling a salt marsh is largely prohibited by law, the damage has already been done. Many wetlands have been severely damaged by these actions, and there are some that have been irrevocably destroyed such that they will never recover. The salt marshes that remain are still greatly at risk. Increased development near these ecosystems can overwhelm them with too much pollution, allowing damage to fish and other wildlife. In addition, rising sea levels will eventually drown these ecosystems out of existence. To protect this priceless natural resource we must first limit further damage to these ecosystems. Then work on restoring these areas that have already been so severely degraded. Although protection of these ecosystems has improved over time–as is the case with the beautiful Rachel Carson Refuge–these areas are still in great need of our help, and will only continue to decline if not properly protected and restored. My strong hope and dream are that when I revisit these almost other-worldly places over the coming years, their beauty and tranquility in which I find joy and wonder will remain — that another young girl will one day walk that same trail I did, and fall in love with the beauty of nature. In the words of Rachel Carson, “The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.” In other words, no one else is coming to save these salt marshes, and the problem is not magically going to go away. We all must take action to protect this unimaginably complex and beautiful ecosystem that in the past we so callously destroyed. That is the legacy and message Rachel Carson leaves us with, and that is what we must do to save this priceless wonder of nature.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author. The sources that the author used can be found here, here, here, and here.