Salt marshes of St. Joseph Bay

Published: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 09:06 AM.

Once considered valueless wastelands and swamps, scientists have researched and demonstrated the true economic value of salt marshes. Fish, birds, and shell fish, virtually the entire coastal ecosystem, relies heavily on salt marshes as a major source of nutrients, food, and for breeding and spawning grounds. Commercial and sport fisheries are dependent on healthy salt marshes. Just to list two examples, juvenile Gray Snappers (Lutjanus griseus) live inshore in tidal marshes, while the adults live in the Gulf around reefs. Striped Mullet (Mugil cephalus) cruise into marshes consuming detritus and algae, and are then consumed by osprey, dolphins, and people. The value of a healthy salt marsh far outweighs the short-term gain as real estate.

In 1990, the marshes around St. Josephs Bay began to show signs of stress and die off. Scientists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission studied the phenomenon and concluded it was caused by an unknown pathogen. However, that seemed to be linked to a drought that may have disrupted the delicate web of associations in the marsh. Marsh snails without sufficient algae on the leaves to scrape off for food can attack the Spartina plant itself. The marsh snails are in turn kept in check by blue crabs, and anything that reduces their numbers can cause the snail population to increase, which causes damage to the marsh grasses. If we have learned anything about nature, it’s that it is all connected.

Gradually many communities have come to realize the value of intact salt marshes as storm buffers, naturally absorbing storm surge and wave energy. This realization often came after their coastal marshes were dredged and filled for housing and shopping centers, and their seawalls crumbled in hurricanes.

At a meeting recently held at the St. Joseph Bay Buffer Preserve and conducted by staff of the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, the components and importance of our marshes were discussed with an audience of researchers, agency personal, public officials, staff from conservation groups, and concerned citizens. For instance, marshes are among the most productive habitats in the world, are important nurseries, and feed both terrestrial and marine life. They provide sediment stabilization, storm and flood protection, wildlife habitat, and filter pollutants from the land before they reach the bay.

One could also add that they provide beauty and recreation. The marshes of St. Joseph Bay are truly treasures deserving of our care and protection.

Tom Baird has been a fisheries biologist, high school and community college teacher (oceanography and microbiology), director of a science and environmental center, teacher of science and principal in Pinellas County as well as an educational consultant. He retired from the Florida Department of Education and he and his wife divide their time between Tallahassee and Cape San Blas.

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