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Salt Marsh Degradation Studies

Salt Marshes in the River

In 2018 the Westport River Watershed Alliance sought out salt marsh ecologists and experts for a “Salt Marsh Degradation Study of Westport River.” The Principle Investigators were Dr. Patrick J. Ewanchuk, Providence College, Dr. Catherine M. Matassa, University of Connecticut and Dr. Mark D. Bertness, Brown University. Findings from this study suggest that changes in water levels and flow may be the primary driver of the accelerated rate of marsh loss, rather than nitrogen overloading (which remains an ecological problem for the Westport River and the watershed.)

Salt marshes are an ecologically important habitat along the New England coastline. They filter out pollution, provide habitat for wildlife, and protect homes from flooding. In addition, more than half of commercial fish species on the East Coast use salt marshes for some part of their lives.

Westport River marshes have declined by nearly 50% during the past 80 years. A recent study suggests that this rate of decline has increased dramatically over the past 15 years. However, the underlying cause of this accelerated loss is not fully  understood. A number of changes along the Westport River, including nitrogen pollution, sea level rise, dredging projects, coastal development, erosion from large storms, and grazing from crabs, are all potential drivers of marsh loss. 

An experimental approach is necessary to identify the mechanisms driving Westport River marsh loss. Scientists from Brown University, Providence College, and UCONN conducted a series of descriptive and manipulative experiments in both branches of the River, which are experiencing different rates of vegetation loss. These experiments were designed to test specific hypotheses. Implementing sound conservation and management strategies require that we understand the underlying ecological processes that are and are not contributing to accelerated marsh loss in the Westport River.

Hypothesis I – Differing flow and sediment dynamics drive differences in vegetation and marsh loss between the branches of the Westport River.

Hypothesis ll – Differing nitrogen loading and eutrophication drive vegetation and marsh loss differences between the branches of the Westport River.

2021 Report – Click Here for the full report on the salt marsh degradation studies done in the Westport River.

WRWA summary of work – Click here for pdf of summary document shown below:.

The scientists presented their findings from the work done in 2018 at WRWA’s Annual Meeting in March, 2019.

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