2005-10-06 / Front Page

Understanding the salt marshes of Jamestown

By Abby Anthony

There is a small book that can be found in Everglades National Park bookstore, but it generally goes unnoticed amidst the hundreds of Audubon birding guides, Peterson field guides, and Golden guides to poisonous animals that line the shelves of the bookstore.

The book is titled “The Gladesmen: Gator Hunters, Moonshiners, and Skiffers” and was written by a very old man by the name of Glen Simmons.

In The Gladesmen, Simmons tells the story of his life in the backcountry of the southern Everglades from his youth to the establishment of Everglades National Park in 1947. Through his thrilling and nostalgic stories of hunting alligators for his living, Simmons documents the forgotten lifestyles of South Florida gladesmen.

Simmons inscribed our copy of “The Gladesmen” with the following statement: “When I owned it all and it was better.”

Before the national park system and the associated roads, tourists, and gift shops, before the condos and golf courses that now characterize South Florida, before the loss of 50 percent of the region’s natural wetlands, Simmons was part of one of the most finely balanced ecosystems in the world, an 11,000-square-mile mosaic of ponds, sloughs, marsh grasses, and mangroves. In this intricate system of vast resources Simmons was not an intruder, but a participant, struggling to make a living catching alligators in a wooden dinghy.

Marsh Meadows and Fox Hill

While manatees and mangroves may seem foreign to us, Simmons’ emotions evoked by Florida’s marshlands most likely resonate with many living in Jamestown. Whether driving through Marsh Meadows on North Main Road during one’s daily commute or walking the dog by Fox Hill Salt Marsh at Fort Getty, we are surrounded by salt marshes. Surely many people roll up their windows and turn on the air conditioning when driving through the Great Creek at low tide. But for many, the island’s salt marshes are reminders of a time when it was better.

My father, now approaching 60, grew up in the island’s salt marshes, which were, at the time, rich with mink, muskrat, and otter. My father and grandfather would traverse the marsh from Zeek’s bait shop to the Watson Farm trapping mink, which my grandfather would later sell to a traveling furrier. As soon as I was big enough to fit into a pair of Wellies my father took me exploring in the same creeks. One wrong step and the mushy ground would give way, sending icy water over the tops of my boots.

Whenever he feels saddened by the changing nature of Jamestown, my father tells me about an old man who used to dig quahogs in the salt marsh. As he dug, he would drop the quahogs into his wheelbarrow. At the end of the day, he would push the wheelbarrow up the hill on North Road and go through town, selling quahogs door-to-door. I believe that says it all.

A salt marsh expert

I recently talked with Dr. John Teal, one of the country’s leading experts on coastal wetlands. In addition to co-authoring “The Life and Death of the Salt Marsh,” the most comprehensive book on the ecology of salt marshes, with his wife Mildred in 1969, Dr. Teal is a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and consults on salt marsh restoration projects throughout the country. In his book, Teal describes not only how well adapted marsh grasses must be to withstand constant contact with salt water, but he also describes why salt marshes are indispensable to the larger marine ecosystem.

Salt marshes are among the most productive habitats on earth in terms of the amount of vegetation produced each year. Costly fertilization and cultivation is necessary to achieve comparable agricultural results in upland fields, services that the tides provide the salt marsh for free. The incoming tide deposits sediment rich in fertilizers on the marsh. The marsh grasses, known as Spartina, absorb the nutrients and grow thick and tall. When the Spartina die, it decays into rich organic “detritus” that feeds many organisms living in the salt marsh and gets pumped out to the ocean with the outgoing tide. As the Teals wrote, “The tide giveth and the tide taketh away.”

Spawning and feeding grounds

Teal also explains that many economically important fish and shellfish spend at least one stage of life in the salt marsh. For example, menhaden, the leading commercial fish by weight landed, and shrimp live in and spawn in the sea as adults, but the young come into the salt marsh to mature. Sea trout come into salt marshes to spawn, and striped bass, shad, and alewife pass through the estuary on their way to freshwater areas where they spawn. Still others that live at sea during the winter come inshore in the summer to feed in the marsh. These species include summer flounder, winter flounder, and bluefish. Oysters, clams, and crabs live in the salt marsh for their entire lives. Teal writes that in 1969 two thirds of the value of the commercial catch of fish and shellfish landed on the East Coast came from species that live at least part of their lives in salt marshes.

Egrets, blue herons, and osprey are favorites of birdwatchers in the salt marsh, but the salt marsh also provides habitat and a resting place for many migratory bird species and waterfowl. The migration patterns of these species, however, depend on finding suitable salt marsh habitat at regular intervals. Breaks in the “ribbon of green” can have disastrous consequences for migratory species. Thus, Teal explains, preserving one salt marsh here and there suffices to provide habitat for stay-athome species, but does not help those species that need habitats throughout their range.

As the Teals point out, “The preservation of a few marshes here and there, will not serve for their existence.”

In addition to migratory birds, every species of duck, goose, and swan in North America depends on wetland habitat during its lifetime, which is one reason that Ducks Unlimited, a group made up mostly of waterfowl hunters, describes itself as the world’s leader in wetlands conservation and just pledged $15 million to restore Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there has been much talk of the role that coastal wetlands play in reducing the impacts of such storms, and proposals to rebuild the Gulf Coast’s salt marshes. While it has generally been agreed that it is highly unlikely that the natural wetlands that used to exist in Louisiana would have reduced the storms’ damage (in this case, the storm surge waters approached the coast from the east, not in the direction of where the natural salt marshes would have been), because marshes lie along the edge of the sea, they are valuable in controlling floods that come from the sea.

According to Teal, salt marshes take the brunt of the blows delivered by storm waves and the waves break over the shallow water of the marsh, and as these waves break they expend the energy stored in them. The breaking waves can cause tremendous damage, and although pieces of the marsh will be broken away by the force of the waves, the marsh is a living system and can rebuild itself. “The marsh can recover, become as it was, all without help or money cost,” the Teals wrote. When the marsh has been filled or destroyed, however, breakwaters, levees, and homes must absorb the force of the storm surge and are often no match for the force of the ocean. Restoring the waterfront is much costlier in this case because, as the Teals wrote, “a building cannot repair itself.”

When asked why he wrote “The Life and Death of the Salt Marsh,” Teal replied that he had had a difficult time explaining the significance of salt marsh ecosystems to people. He told of taking a group of school children from Hackensack, N.J. on a field trip to a salt marsh. The trip was going well until their boat got stuck in the middle of the marsh. Faced with having to get out of the boat and walk through the marsh, the children were terrified. For those children, said Teal, a visit to a salt marsh was a visit to hell. Teal wanted to reach out to those people that have not had the opportunity to experience a salt marsh.

Most of the people in this country probably use words such as buggy, squishy, stagnant, swampy, smelly, and goopy to describe a marsh. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be able to use words like peaceful, beautiful, sparkling, dynamic, diverse, and productive.

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