Jackson Estuarine Laboratory

Ecological responses to tidal restorations of two northern New England salt marshes


Efforts are underway to restore tidal flow in New England salt marshes that were negatively impacted by tidal restrictions. We evaluated a planned tidal restoration at Mill Brook Marsh (New Hampshire) and at Drakes Island Marsh (Maine) where partial tidal restoration inadvertently occurred. Salt marsh functions were evaluated in both marshes to determine the impacts from tidal restriction and the responses following restoration. Physical and biological indicators of salt marsh functions (tidal range, surface elevations, soil water levels and salinities, plant cover, and fish use) were measured and compared to those from nonimpounded reference sites. Common impacts from tidal restrictions at both sites were: loss of tidal flooding, declines in surface elevation, reduced soil salinity, replacement of salt marsh vegetation by fresh and brackish plants, and loss of fish use of the marsh.

Water levels, soil salinities and fish use increased immediately following tidal restoration. Salt-intolerant vegetation was killed within months. After two years, mildly salt-tolerant vegetation had been largely replaced in Mill Brook Marsh by several species characteristic of both high and low salt marshes. Eight years after the unplanned, partial tidal restoration at Drakes Island Marsh, the vegetation was dominated bySpartina alterniflora, a characteristic species of low marsh habitat.

Hydrologic restoration that allowed for unrestricted saltwater exchange at Mill Brook restored salt marsh functions relatively quickly in comparison to the partial tidal restoration at Drakes Island, where full tidal exchange was not achieved. The irregular tidal regime at Drakes Island resulted in vegetation cover and patterns dissimilar to those of the high marsh used as a reference. The proper hydrologic regime (flooding height, duration and frequency) is essential to promote the rapid recovery of salt marsh functions. We predict that functional recovery will be relatively quick at Mill Brook, but believe that the habitat at Drakes Island will not become equivalent to that of the reference marsh unless the hydrology is further modified.


Jackson Estuarine Laboratory, Natural Resources and the Environment

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Wetlands Ecology and Management



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