Experts Work to Restore Vital Salt Marshes, provide Storm Protection for N.J.

Posted by Erin O'Neill, NJ Advance Media for on Oct 07, 2014


Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, right, today looks at aerial photographs of salt marsh habitat in the Reeds Beach section of Middle Township with Heidi Hanlon, left, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Erin O'Neill/The Star-Ledger)

On a road that leads to the Delaware Bay in the southern reaches of New Jersey, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell today stood before a degraded salt marsh, questioning a group of experts about how the area got to its current state and how they plan to fix it.

Larry Niles, a wildlife biologist working with the American Littoral Society, told Jewell that farming for salt hay took its toll on the tract of land in the Reeds Beach section of Middle Township over hundreds of years, leaving the marshes about a foot to two feet lower than they would be naturally. But, Niles said, plans are in the works to restore the marsh in the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge to its original condition.

“If we don’t restore the marsh then ultimately, we’re gradually going to lose it,” Niles said, and “without the marsh, most of what we appreciate about Delaware Bay won’t exist.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is entering into a $1.9 million agreement with the American Littoral Society to achieve that goal, most likely by employing an emerging method that aims to build up marshes with dredge spoils. Officials say bolstering salt marshes serves to preserve wildlife habitat while also providing a buffer against storms like Hurricane Sandy.

Heidi Hanlon, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the restoration effort would involve spraying out a thin layer of dredge material over the marshes and “if we put in a few inches, then we know that the grasses can still grow up through the sediment.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection launched a pilot program this summer that aims to build up marshes in southern New Jersey using that method, an effort funded in part with an Interior Department grant.

Jewell, who also toured a $1.65 million federally-funded beach restoration project, said these types of resiliency projects provide multiple benefits. While the beach restoration effort supports critical habitat for horseshoe crabs — and the red knot shorebirds that feast on the crab’s eggs during their journey from South America to the Arctic Circle — Jewell said it also provides protection for inland communities and keeps an economic engine for the area thriving.

“As we take the opportunity from the Hurricane Sandy recovery money to restore marshes that have subsided over time because of human activity like farming and so on, to bring those back to a higher level, we will protect inland communities and uplands,” she said. “When they do that they will protect a lot of the homes and businesses that are inland while protecting the habitat.”

Niles also said that restoring the marshes will help protect the work done to the area’s beaches because the low height of the marshes allows a lot of water to move in that wouldn’t normally and that erodes the inlets and beaches.

“If we were able to lift up this marsh just like we hope to do in other parts of the bay then it sort of solidifies our gains that we’ve made on the beaches because we’re restoring the beaches for crab spawning,” he said. “If we don’t do something about the marshes then we’re just going to be back in the same picture again.”

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