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Tidal Salt Marshes
Credit: Neils Kooyman - Minden

Tidal Salt Marshes

Call to action:

Protect and restore tidal salt marshes by halting further encroachment on them, returning tidal flows, and managing invasive species.

Tidal salt marshes are coastal wetlands that are washed daily by saltwater tides and are powerful storage systems for carbon—much more effective than forests. These unique habitats occur along seacoasts and estuaries from the tropics to the Arctic. They provide shelter for juvenile fish, crabs, and shrimp, and buffer inland communities against erosion and flooding. Unfortunately, 25–50 percent of salt marshes around the world have already been lost, and existing marshes are threatened by development and sea-level rise, potentially transforming these carbon sinks to carbon sources. Yet salt marshes respond quickly to restoration: simply returning tidal flows to a dammed marsh also returns much of its ability to store carbon and protect shorelines within just a year or two, and in five years the marsh becomes rich habitat for wildlife. Recognizing their value, protecting existing salt marshes, and restoring those that have been damaged are ways to maintain biodiversity and reduce coastal vulnerability to sea-level rise—while ensuring carbon continues to be stored in their soil.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn why tidal salt marshes are important and what threatens them. Tidal salt marshes are extremely productive ecosystems, important ecologically and economically, and highly efficient at sequestering carbon. Yet they are underappreciated and need advocates and protectors.

Visit a tidal salt marsh. Salt marshes are sanctuaries for abundant and varied birds, safe and fun places for kayaking or canoeing, and beautiful scenes for photography, sketching, or painting.

  • Give your enjoyment of the marsh a chance to ripple out. Bring a friend so they can see how beautiful and important these places are. Share your experiences on social media so appreciation of salt marshes spreads. And support local businesses near salt marshes so their communities gain from ecotourism and have even more reason to value and protect marshes.
  • Enjoy salt marshes responsibly. If you fish, obey fishing regulations and don’t take more than is allowed and you can use. Recreational fishing can strip enough top predators from salt marshes to disrupt the balance of the salt marsh ecosystem to the point that the system dies. Off-road vehicle use—even mountain bikes—can leave wheel ruts that last for years, as can off-trail hiking.

Connect with organizations that are protecting and restoring salt marshes. Organizations large and small are involved in salt marsh restoration and protection, and they can be a great way to connect with your community. Volunteer with them, donate, and/or sign up for their newsletters to learn more. See Key Players for several organizations, or search for salt marsh conservation or restoration projects in your area.

Make choices that support salt marshes. Even if you live far from the coast, you can do simple things that help salt marshes thrive.

Advocate for and fund salt marsh restoration and protection. Directed funding and legislative change are critical to ensuring the future of salt marshes.

  • Start a campaign for community awareness of marsh importance. For example, a “marshie”—salt marsh selfie—campaign in Georgia promoted the need for buffers next to marshes.
  • Organize with neighbors to improve your local salt marsh. In Boston, the Mill Creek Salt Marsh Restoration Project restored a half acre of salt marsh and created new recreational opportunities.
  • Write to your national or state legislators to request or support legislation and funding for marsh preservation and restoration. If you live in a coastal area, contact your local government to discuss the benefits of marshes and the need to include them in planning and funding. In Montenegro, sustained and savvy pressure on government saved a salt marsh considered the “Heathrow Airport for migratory birds.”
  • Buy a fishing license, fishing stamp, or duck stamp even if you do not fish or hunt. These licenses and stamps help fund research and conservation efforts at state and federal levels. The duck stamp also provides free access to U.S. federal wildlife refuges, like a park pass for birders.

Groups

Farmers

Prevent eutrophication and pesticide pollution runoff that can affect salt marshes. Excess nitrogen from fertilizer runoff can travel down waterways for miles, ending up in salt marshes. The runoff stimulates microbes in salt marshes to release CO2 and reduces root growth in marsh plants, making marshes more vulnerable to erosion. By reducing or eliminating fertilizer use, improving soil health, and planting buffer zones like hedgerows or prairie strips, farmers can support marsh health.

Manage livestock so as to protect salt marshes. Prevent livestock access to salt marsh or use best practices for grazing to ensure the salt marsh stays intact.

Local Governments

Prioritize preserving existing salt marshes. Although restoring salt marshes is effective and necessary, restored marshes may take a hundred years to be functionally equivalent to existing salt marshes. The New South Wales government has created this summary of salt marsh management needs.

  • Zone and regulate development so salt marshes are preserved. Careful, strict zoning, without variances, is essential to preventing development that endangers marshes. These developments can block marshes from responding to sea-level rise and reduce biodiversity. Requiring generous setbacks and substantial buffers also helps protect marshes and allows them to migrate.
  • Protect marshes and nearby land in perpetuity through conservation easements. Conservation easements are voluntary legal agreements that limit uses for a given piece of land in perpetuity. They can be a low-cost way to preserve marshes and allow them to migrate as sea level rises.
  • Plan roadways and causeways so as to maintain tidal flow and not impound salt marshes. Existing roadways and railways have impounded large tracts of salt marsh, cutting them off from the source of their tides.
  • Use living shorelines to stabilize and protect coastlines. Living shorelines are shore protection structures made of natural or living materials like vegetation buffers or oyster reefs. They grow over time instead of eroding, provide green space, allow natural marsh function, and support wildlife. They are inexpensive compared to hard shorelines, provide better protection, and are less likely to be damaged during storms. NOAA provides tools for planning living shorelines and an interactive map of example projects.

Land Managers

Restore salt marshes, beginning with returning appropriate flows. At Port Susan in Washington, a collaboration removed a saltwater dike, allowing the marshland to regain eight inches of elevation in seven years and store carbon faster than neighboring marshes. In Essex in the UK, a combination of breaching seawalls and using coir rolls to trap sediment improved flood protection and prevented marsh erosion. Case studies for several sites on the East Coast of the U.S. and in Canada can inform restoration.

Use best practices for integrated mosquito management. Many wetlands do not produce significant numbers of mosquitos, but where they do, surveillance can establish whether local species carry disease, and risk should be assessed. Alteration of hydrology, if it is done at all, should be done with care for the impacts that it has on the rest of the ecosystem.

Homeowners and land holders

Create conservation easements to protect marshes on your land. These easements are legal agreements that stay with the land and protect it for future generations. The Land Trust Alliance can help you understand conservation easements and find a land trust to work with to make sure that agreement is kept.

Make your home salt-marsh friendly. Taking care of your land in ways that protect salt marshes can protect your land as well, while increasing biodiversity.

Educators

Teach about salt marshes. Educators have a key role in eliminating one of the main obstacles to salt marsh preservation: lack of understanding. Other habitats such as beaches are prioritized in policy and funding while marshes are overlooked. Education is key to helping children and their families recognize how important salt marshes are and how much they need protection. Like other wetlands, salt marshes are excellent places for environmental education, with many ways to engage.

Researchers

Conduct research on salt marshes. More research on salt marshes and blue carbon generally is needed. Salt marshes are relatively understudied, and basic questions remain unanswered:

Companies

Partner with nonprofit conservation organizations to aid their work in salt marsh protection and restoration at the local or regional level. Many salt marsh protection organizations, such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation or CoastCare, partner with businesses for event sponsorships, volunteerism, and investments or grants. Organizations such as Blue Ventures work with local partners to rebuild fisheries and create thriving economies.

Invest in blue infrastructure and blue carbon. There are multiple ways that corporations can invest in conservation. Maryland is working out a framework that allows investment in projects that reduce the administrative burden of conservation work and allows loans for well-defined “blue infrastructure,” including salt marsh projects.

Governance

Incentivize and fund salt marsh protection and restoration.

  • Pay for Success models of contracting allow state agencies to partner with impact investors for greater flexibility in funding restoration. Louisiana now has mechanisms in place for Pay for Success, and other states are establishing them.
  • Australia’s National Environmental Science Programme: Marine Biodiversity Hub recommends more traditional mechanisms, such as acquiring salt marshes through buyouts, discounting flood insurance for salt-marsh protected areas, and incentive payments for conserving or restoring salt marshes.

Legislate to protect salt marshes where they are not already protected. Without protection, salt marshes are vulnerable to reclamation projects that promote development or agriculture but lose the numerous ecosystem services that salt marshes provide.

  • Georgia’s Coastal Marshlands Protection Act is an effective example of legislation at the state level. Based on the idea that the marshes are the property of the people of Georgia, it requires permitting that is responsive to marsh movement and has protected large expanses of marsh relative to neighboring states without such laws.
  • China is protecting its large area of remaining salt marsh through measures such as marine ecological redlining and regulating reclamation.

Extend Indigenous land rights over coasts and seascapes, including salt marshes. This recognizes Indigenous cultural heritage and enables Indigenous peoples to protect biodiversity using traditional knowledge of their areas.

Clarify regulations and permitting for maximum protection of wetlands and salt marshes. Smart permitting is essential to the success of restoration projects and to preventing marsh degradation, but current practices often impede restoration and allow marsh damage.

Partner with other governments to ensure the health of marshes. Partnership allows for cooperative management and knowledge sharing.

  • The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is a global framework for international cooperation on wetland preservation, including wetlands that span national boundaries. Contracting partners use international standards for wetland conservation and share knowledge with each other.
  • The Wadden Sea Plan is a cooperative protection and management plan between the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany for the largest Transboundary Ramsar Site, a multihabitat coastal wetland area in the North Sea that includes salt marshes and related habitats.
  • In the U.S., governments of southeastern states are collaborating with each other and other stakeholders through the Southeast Regional Partnership for Planning and Sustainability to conserve over 1 million acres of wetlands, including wetlands on military bases.

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