Gloucester Daily Times
February 3, 2014

Film exposes 'danger' in local salt marsh
By Angeljean Chiaramida Staff Writer

 Bryan Eaton/Gloucester Daily Times Newbury Selectman Geoff Walker, left, joins with Merrimack Valley Planning Commission's Peter Phippen and filmmaker Richard Hydren, right, at a stand of phragmites on Ring's Island in Salisbury.

Bryan Eaton/Gloucester Daily Times Newbury Selectman Geoff Walker, left, joins with Merrimack Valley Planning Commission's Peter Phippen and filmmaker Richard Hydren, right, at a stand of phragmites on Ring's Island in Salisbury.

SALISBURY — When Newbury Selectman and Ducks Unlimited Marsh Chairman Geoff Walker looks at the thicket of tall, densely packed phragmite reeds in Ring’s Island’s salt marsh, there is passion in his heart.

“They’re so tall and thick, if you get caught in this stand of phragmites in the evening ... you better have a compass (to find your way out),” Walker says in the documentary “Danger in the Reeds.” “What you’re looking at is the plant I hate the most. This is my enemy.”

“Danger in the Reeds” was produced by filmmaker Richard Hydren as part of the communications effort to educate the region’s population and federal grant makers on the damage being done every day to Cape Ann and the North Shore’s Great Salt Marsh by this invasive species. According to Salisbury Town Manager Neil Harrington, the 20-minute video should be required viewing for everyone living in seacoast communities.

The Great Salt Marsh extends about 25 miles along the local coast, from Gloucester in the south to Hampton, N.H., in the north. Its largest swath covers an immense marsh crisscrossed by rivers, creeks and drainage canals extending through portions of Essex, Ipswich, Rowley, Newbury and Newburyport.

The film was made in conjunction with the work being done by the Great Marsh Revitalization Task Force. The large group involves seacoast cities and towns and scores of stakeholders, conservation groups, scientists, state and federal agencies, as well as legislators, all striving to prevent phragmites from obliterating one of the region’s most valuable natural resources.

“I urge people to watch the film (at www.dangerinthereeds.com),” Harrington said. “It explains what’s going on at the marsh (and how the phragmites) are undermining the ecosystem.”

Phragmite fighters

The task force was spearheaded originally by state Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and former state Sen. Steve Baddour. Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, replaced Baddour on the task force after he left office. The group is taking on this super-species of invasive plant. Its work is critical in protecting the Great Marsh’s role in the ecological chain, as about 80 percent of marine life gets its start in salt marshes, with food sources that feed a wide variety of wildlife, including fish, birds, ducks and four-footed critters that have called it home since the beginning of time.

But in addition, Harrington said, healthy coastal marshes act as sponges and buffers in protecting property by preventing wide-scale coastal flooding during incidents like coastal storms. The long-term sustainability of the Great Marsh would go far in preventing the type of flooding that devastated the New Jersey and New York coastlines during Hurricane Sandy.

“Danger in the Reeds” is an important aspect in obtaining a $3.23 million grant to combat the phragmite infestation in the Great Marsh, according to Peter Phippen of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, a member of the task force. The application will be filed with a copy of the film and about 60 letters of support from regional communities, in hopes of getting a small scoop of the second pot of federal money intended to prevent Hurricane Sandy-like damage to coastal communities, he said.

The first round of government prevention dollars freed up after Sandy hit was for building seawalls and other hard barriers to deter the flooding that accompanies coastal storms and which damages public and private property. This new round of about $100 million is intended to underwrite and foster the use of “green infrastructure,” or marsh lands systems, Phippen said, instead of those solid barriers.

“This is National Wildlife Federation resiliency grant funds,” Phippen said. “It’s to identify projects that would promote (marsh) resiliency that would reduce the risk of flooding to communities along the seacoast caused by sea level rise, storm surge and erosion.”

The Great Marsh Revitalization Task Force, in conjunction with a number of other organizations such as the Audubon Society, NOAH and others, hopes to use the grant money to undertake eight projects that include restoring 327 acres of phragmite- and pepper weed-infected marshland, as well as dune repair on Plum Island and Salisbury Beach, eel grass restoration to stabilize channels and mudflats, and a Great Marsh hydrodynamic modeling study to understand the water system in the marsh, Phippen said.

“We’re hoping they’ll spend $3 million now to save the salt marsh instead of having to spend $300 million later to build seawalls, jetties and groins to prevent flooding after the Great Marsh is gone,” Phippen said.

Phippen and Walker praised Tarr, O’Connor Ives and other legislators who have signed on to the cause. Tarr, they said, has been the linchpin pulling all the groups of stakeholders together and keeping them focused.

Salt marsh bully

Growing almost 20 feet in height, phragmites australis, or common reed, is a hardy species that can choke out all others once it establishes itself. It has become an unwelcome and invasive plant along the Atlantic coast, killing native species and turning salt marshes into meadows of tall reeds that can no longer support the life that once flourished there.

In addition to spreading quickly, once it’s taken root in tall, dense stands, it’s nearly impossible to kill. It reproduces by seeds, but also does so underground by rhizomes.

According to Tim Simmons, a restoration specialist with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, the phragmites causing the problems have their origins most likely in Europe, Asia and Africa, coming as ballast to the New World aboard 16th- and 17th-century ships.

Its invasive nature wasn’t noticed until the 1950s, Simmons said, when it began to take over as the coastal marshes grew less saline due to a number of development-related changes, such poor drainage and storm water cascading off roads and into the marshes.

Plus, the plant appears to thrive when disturbed, Simmons said. Cut it and it’s going to say “thank you,” if you don’t follow it up with herbicide spraying, Simmons explains in “Danger in the Reeds.”

Left on its own, the plant creates its own environment, Walker said. It grows thick, blocking out the sun and trapping fresh rain water to drink, instead of the saline liquid native to the marsh, which it doesn’t like. And it grows so dense that it actually prevents the daily ocean tides from washing into the salt marshes, further lowering salinity.

Once phragmites take hold, Walker said, native vegetation doesn’t have a chance. Neither does the marine life that made the salt marsh so rich.

“It can out-compete anything natural in the salt marsh,” Walker said. “This plant takes everything away.”

Angeljean Chiaramida may be contacted at achiaramida@gloucestertimes.com.