Restoring New England’s Estuaries

Estuaries, where freshwater meets the sea, are hotspots of biological diversity and productivity, rated second only to rainforests in their biological diversity. Their many forms — salt marshes, mud flats, tidal rivers, salt ponds — are essential for many marine fish, shellfish, plants, hawks and wading and migratory birds. They also provide critical ecological services such as pollution filtration, storm surge protection and flood control. Recent studies suggest salt marshes may be among the highest carbon-fixing areas on the planet, helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and ocean. Healthy, growing estuaries can even help mitigate sea level rise from climate change. By trapping sediment pushed around by tides, they provide soil in which marsh plants can take root. Over time, the marsh grows upward, outpacing rising sea levels.

In addition, New England’s estuaries provide places to commune with nature and scenic fishing, birding and boating opportunities that generate tourist dollars and support New England’s close connection to the sea.

But our region’s tidal estuaries are in trouble. Estuaries are dynamic systems that need space for constant evolution. Instead, over the centuries, we have filled them in for farming, housing, industrial development, coastal roads and rail lines, losing more than 50 percent of our salt marshes in the Gulf of Maine. This development can cause pollution and block life-sustaining tidal flows. Without the twice-daily rush of ocean water, the delicate balance of salt and freshwater topples, and freshwater and upland plants invade the salt marsh landscape. Upstream development and dams also restrict sediment flows, depriving the marsh system of its ability to build land to replace erosion. Coastal concrete and other hard structures often imprison remaining wetlands, preventing them from migrating as a form of adaption.

In 1995, CLF and its partners created Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE), a national organization dedicated to addressing this challenge. Through RAE and the federal NOAA Community-based Restoration Program, CLF provides funds to local partners in New England and we advocate for increased federal funding for salt marsh protection and restoration. Over the years, RAE and CLF have distributed close to a million dollars to numerous communities and watershed organizations in the region, including: Addison, ME, to understand options for a large dam removal project; Sandwich, MA, to expand tidal passages under highways and railroad beds to return saltwater flows to its iconic marshes; Quincy, MA, to replant salt marsh plants on barrier beaches; and Merrimack, NH, to provide critical funding to remove an abandoned inland dam.

Restoration projects provide important opportunities for local residents and officials to learn about the importance and fragile nature of marsh and river areas. Since it may take decades for these remedial projects to bring full healing to the ecosystem, the learning experience from these projects help New Englanders understand the preeminent importance of preventing damage in the first place.

Recent inventories by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicated a substantial need for more restoration projects in New England, which has inspired CLF and RAE to continue efforts to increase federal funding. CLF believes that restoring New England’s estuaries is critical to the health of the region’s natural ecosystem and that healthy marshes will be a critical defense against sea level rise and increased storm activity while contributing to health, thriving wildlife and fish populations. Increased federal funding, wetlands education, and successful community restoration efforts are showing us the way.

For a complete list of RAE member groups, click here.

Peter Shelley, Senior Counsel