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Volunteers Assess Salt Marsh Health (7/99)

By VIVIAN KOOKEN. Photo by Stephan Gersh.

July 1999: How do you assess the health of a wetland? This question has become increasingly important in our efforts to protect and conserve wetlands. In the past, attention has focused on the total acreage of wetlands protected rather than how valuable those wetlands are in terms of habitat. Many scientists believe we should give first priority to the protection of wetlands that already afford critical habitat for a wide range of organisms.

With this enormous task at hand, scientists are hoping to enlist the help and enthusiasm of volunteers to assess the health of their local salt marshes. This summer, Eight Towns and the Bay and Salem Sound 2000 are hosting a pilot volunteer monitoring program that is training North Shore citizens in wetland health assessment.

Scientists are teaching the “Wetlands Health Assessment Toolbox” (W.H.A.T) approach to volunteers. This technique is used by scientists from Coastal Zone Management (CZM), the Massachusetts Bays Program (MBP) and University of Massachusetts Extension, in their research on Cape Cod and the North Shore. These scientists study six parameters of wetlands: birds, plants, water chemistry, land use, tidal influence, and benthic macroinvertebrates. The information they obtain on each parameter of a wetland is combined to arrive at an overall picture of health for the wetland.

At the same time that volunteers are testing our marshes, the project scientists are testing the accuracy of volunteers’ data collection results. Project scientists are duplicating volunteers’ efforts in the field, collecting data on the same parameters and comparing the two data sets. It is hoped that the citizen volunteers and the scientists will develop statistically similar data. With this assurance of data quality, the volunteer wetland assessment project may be adopted by volunteer organizations throughout the New England region.

The Wetland Health program is utilizing four different salt marsh areas as project sites. These sites are on Little Neck Road in Ipswich, Conomo Point Road in Essex, Long Wharf in Gloucester and Forest River in Salem.

These sites were chosen because they have all been adversely affected by either tidal restrictions or stormwater runoff. Volunteers are assessing the current health of these wetlands and hope to continue testing them over the next few years to track the progress of restoration projects.

In order to determine how “healthy” a wetland is, a reference site that is relatively undisturbed must be selected for comparison. Each of the four project wetlands has a corresponding reference site. Reference sites represent “pristine conditions” in the same type of wetland as its partner site. Data collection at the reference sites will be used to develop a baseline in which to compare the data collected at project sites.

The Ipswich, Essex and Gloucester sites are all areas that have been impacted by tidal restrictions. For this group of marshes, project sites are upstream of the restriction while reference sites are all downstream of the restriction. The Forest River has recently undergone stormwater remediation. The reference site for this area is another part of the Forest River marsh that is conservation land and unaffected by the stormwater problem.

The W.H.A.T. program consists of a series of six workshops. Each workshop is training volunteers in a different assessment parameter that will be used this summer. Scientists from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, UMass Extension, CZM, and MBP are leading workshops in the classroom and the field, in the following subjects: Avifauna (birds), water chemistry, land use, aquatic macroinvertebrates, and tidal influence. After completing training, volunteers are pulling on their hip boots and using their new skills to collect data in the field.

At the final wrap-up meeting in September, volunteers will be given an opportunity to review the data collected over the summer and also evaluate the program. The volunteers’ evaluations and suggestions will be crucial in the structure of future programs and workshops.

A Pilot Program

The merging of citizen stewardship and scientific assessment in our local wetlands makes the program a unique opportunity for all those involved. By the end of the summer, volunteers will have gained valuable training and experience in a variety of wetland assessment parameters. The results of their efforts may be used to help judge the effectiveness of some local restoration projects.

On a much broader scale, if this pilot program is successful, it may be adopted by volunteer organizations throughout the New England region. Our North Shore volunteers are at the forefront of this new concept and technique. Hopefully, with many more trained volunteers, the protection of local wetlands will become a much more personal issue to citizens across New England.

Vivian Kooken was coordinator of the Wetland Health Assessment Program based at the Salem Sound 2000 office in Salem. For more information on the program, please call 978-741-7900.