Wetlands Losing Ground on the Coast
I grew up on Cape Cod, in a house overlooking a salt marsh and tidal creek that were home to bluefish, striped bass, blue crabs, mussels, soft shell clams, “quahogs”, oysters, hermit crabs and fiddler crabs, not to mention the archaic and very cool horseshoe crabs. At low tide we roamed the mudflats, digging for clams and chasing fish with our nets. At dusk on full moon high tides, the bluefish and striped bass came in droves, jumping out of the water and sending my dad and uncle running across the lawn with their fishing poles. Needless to say, I grew up with a great love for the salt marshes. I took for granted they would always be there.
My sister, Susan-Marie Stedman, became a wetland scientist and currently works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She recently co-authored a report on some alarming trends called Status and Trends of Wetlands in Coastal Watersheds of the Conterminous United States 2004 – 2009. At a time when environmental policy competes with wars, the economy, and global upheaval, this report is creating a stir across the country. She and her co-author, Tom Dahl of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have been interviewed by print and radio media, and the story has been in newspapers and on web sites from Alaska to Maine to Florida, including a recent front-page piece in the Washington Post. Congressional staff will be briefed on this report on January 30th. So I interviewed her for Sci on the Fly; here is what I found out:
“Bottom line, the problem is that the USA is losing a lot of wetlands in coastal areas, the loss is accelerating, and we don’t understand all of the reasons why,” Susan-Marie said. She went on to explain that between 2004 and 2009 coastal watersheds in the continental US lost 80,000 acres a year of wetlands – that’s about 7 football fields every hour! To clarify, it isn’t just places like our salt marsh on the Cape that we are losing. Coastal watersheds can go pretty far inland – almost as far as Albany in the case of the Hudson River watershed - so most of the wetlands in those watersheds are freshwater wetlands, like swamps. The report showed that freshwater forested wetlands were lost at the highest rate of all wetland types.
So, why are the wetlands disappearing? According to Susan-Marie, “We don’t understand all of the reasons, but a big one is development. People like to live near the coast, and our population is only increasing. More people means more houses, more roads, and fewer natural areas, like wetlands.” Growing the wood to build those houses is also associated with wetland loss. “About 25% of the forested wetlands harvested during the study period were converted to “uplands” through drainage or other processes.” For saltwater wetlands, one major problem is erosion during storms (think Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) and the numerous ways humans have disturbed the rapidly disappearing Mississippi delta.
So, why should people care if we lose wetlands? “If you like eating seafood, you should care about wetlands, since wetlands provide habitat for fish and shellfish like shrimp, blue crab, striped bass, bluefish, and prey species that support bigger fish offshore, like tuna.” Wetland loss also affects water quality, because wetlands filter pollutants, acting as the “kidneys” of coastal ecosystems. Wetlands also store storm water, control storm surge and protect coastal communities from erosion. Studies show that the effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita on developed areas would have been much less if coastal wetlands been left intact. Last, but not least, salt water wetlands help to reduce global warming by storing carbon and preventing its release into the atmosphere.
Yikes! So, is the damage reversible? “We are never going to be able to put back all wetlands that we’ve lost. What we can do is reduce future loss and reverse the trend through restoration. We are already protecting some wetlands through the federal Clean Water Act, and state regulatory programs, but local municipalities need to get involved and use their zoning and land use planning authorities to prevent rampant coastal development. I was recently outside Galveston, TX standing in ankle-deep water, examining “isolated” wetlands (which are not protected by the government). Across the street in what was once another “isolated” wetland there was a huge residential development built on fill.” Why do people have to live in fragile productive ecosystems like wetlands? “As for restoration, funding is hard to find right now. There are some promising new approaches like “living shorelines” – a relatively inexpensive, eco-friendly alternative to artificial bulkheads for protecting coastal property. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, a “green infrastructure” movement is rapidly gaining momentum and promoting this type of green approach.
Coastal wetland loss is a serious problem for the health and sustainability of the environment, to which the health and sustainability of the human population is directly linked. Recognizing, understanding, and most of all, taking action to sustain this linkage between wetlands and humans is needed to ensure that the salt marshes I enjoyed as a kid will still be there for my children’s children.
Special thanks to Susan-Marie Stedman, Fishery Biologist, NOAA for providing content for this piece through personal interview. Photo by David Colantuono, www.wickedlocal.com
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