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Protecting the Great Marsh From Climate-Driven Threats
A Coastal Jewel
The Great Marsh is described by many as the coastal jewel of the Northeast. It’s the largest salt marsh in New England, spanning over 20,000 acres of pristine marsh habitat, barrier beaches, and tidal estuaries. Located in northeastern Massachusetts, it is designated a Long Term Ecological Research Network site, an Important Bird Area of Global Significance and an area of Critical Environmental Concern.
However, this unique coastal ecosystem is under threat from climate-driven hazards such as sea level rise, warmer temperatures, and bigger and more frequent storm surges contributing to flooding and higher rates of coastal erosion. These hazards pose a threat to humans and wildlife living in and around the Great Marsh.
A wide variety of birds rely on this healthy marsh ecosystem to provide food and shelter. During the summer, federally threatened piping plovers can be found nesting along the barrier beaches – which are some of the most productive breeding grounds in the world for this species.
During fall, shorebirds, terns, and herons congregate in spectacular numbers before making the long journey south. In the winter, majestic snowy owls often inhabit the marsh, feeding on rodents and other small prey. When spring finally approaches and the snow and ice recedes, the marsh inevitably fills with ducks and herons – a harbinger of warmer months ahead.
Of all the birds that benefit from this ecosystem, shorebirds likely see the greatest benefit – but they also have the most to lose.
The Great Marsh is one of the key stop-over sites for migrating shorebirds as they make one of the longest journeys of any animal on earth: from their breeding grounds in the northern arctic to the beaches of south America, and then back again. These shorebirds depend on key stopover sites along the coast where they can rest and gorge themselves on invertebrates as they refuel before continuing their journey.
The degradation of just one stopover site, such as the Great Marsh, could have a profound effect on shorebird populations.
A Threatened Ecosystem
This bird rich ecosystem exists under a delicate balance achieved through minor changes occurring over hundreds of years.
Due to climate change and human development, changes to this habitat are occurring rapidly – too rapidly for the natural systems to adapt.
Invasive plants such as Phragmites and Perennial Pepperweed are crowding out native vegetation; European green crabs are eating native eelgrass that used to stabilize tidal channels and prevent erosion. Both the marsh and the barrier beaches are eroding at an alarming rate, and sea level rise and human development will likely exacerbate this already dire issue.
Working Towards a Solution
Thanks to a grant from the Department of the Interior, the National Wildlife Federation’s Northeast Regional Office is working with a host of local partners on a variety of projects that work synergistically to enhance the resiliency and adaptive capacity of this coastal gem. These efforts will protect wildlife and will reduce risk to human communities that rely on the Great Marsh to buffer storm surge and sea level rise.
The National Wildlife Federation and its partners are:
- Restoring 325 acres of native marsh vegetation;
- Stabilizing 6 miles of coastline by planting native vegetation along coastal dunes;
- Assessing 1,200 hydrobarriers (such as culverts and dams) that can cause flooding and that disrupt flow of water and sediments throughout the marsh;
- Creating an advanced hydrodynamic sediment transport model that will lead to a better understanding of marsh dynamics, erosion paths, and marsh deposition – information required for successful restoration efforts;
- Developing ecosystem oriented adaptation strategies that serve to reduce risk and enhance resiliency of the coastal systems.
These efforts form an integrated approach to restoring and protecting one of the greatest coastal ecosystems in New England. If you want proof of just how amazing this area is, go for a visit. Stop in at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge; take a boat ride through the tidal estuaries of the Plum Island sound; or perhaps visit Crane Beach to see the largest concentration of breeding piping plovers anywhere in the world.
The Great Marsh is a truly special place.