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The World of the Salt Marsh

The World of the Salt Marsh: Appreciating and Protecting the Tidal Marshes of the Southeastern Atlantic Coast

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    The World of the Salt Marsh
    Book Description:

    The World of the Salt Marsh is a wide-ranging exploration of the southeastern coast-its natural history, its people and their way of life, and the historic and ongoing threats to its ecological survival. Focusing on areas from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to Cape Canaveral, Florida, Charles Seabrook examines the ecological importance of the salt marsh, calling it "a biological factory without equal." Twice-daily tides carry in a supply of nutrients that nourish vast meadows of spartina (Spartina alterniflora)-a crucial habitat for creatures ranging from tiny marine invertebrates to wading birds. The meadows provide vital nurseries for 80 percent of the seafood species, including oysters, crabs, shrimp, and a variety of finfish, and they are invaluable for storm protection, erosion prevention, and pollution filtration. Seabrook is also concerned with the plight of the people who make their living from the coast's bounty and who carry on its unique culture. Among them are Charlie Phillips, a fishmonger whose livelihood is threatened by development in McIntosh County, Georgia, and Vera Manigault of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, a basket maker of Gullah-Geechee descent, who says that the sweetgrass needed to make her culturally significant wares is becoming scarcer. For all of the biodiversity and cultural history of the salt marshes, many still view them as vast wastelands to be drained, diked, or "improved" for development into highways and subdivisions. If people can better understand and appreciate these ecosystems, Seabrook contends, they are more likely to join the growing chorus of scientists, conservationists, fishermen, and coastal visitors and residents calling for protection of these truly amazing places.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4384-6
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. [Map]
    (pp. xii-xii)
    (pp. 1-7)

    I spent half my childhood trying to get off an island. I have spent half my adulthood trying to get back.

    The island is John’s Island, one of the sleepy, semitropical sea islands nuzzling the South Carolina coast that are surrounded by vast salt marshes, broad sounds, and winding tidal rivers. It was home to my ancestors for two hundred years, a haven where everyone knew my name. My daddy once warned me how it would be when I left : “When you leave this island, nobody will give a damn whether your name is Seabrook,” he said.

    But I...

  6. CHAPTER ONE The Poetry of the Marsh
    (pp. 8-19)

    Ridden with tuberculosis, his strength ebbing away, the man who was to become Georgia’s most revered poet came to Brunswick on the Georgia coast in the 1870s, seeking respite from his affliction. The clean ocean breezes and the deep pine fragrance suffusing Brunswick’s air were thought to be excellent elixirs for those plagued by the then-incurable lung disease.¹

    Sidney Lanier had contracted “consumption” during the Civil War at Camp Point Lookout, Maryland, a crowded Union Army prison where he was locked up in 1864 after being captured by Union forces. After the war, to support his young wife, Mary, and...

  7. CHAPTER TWO A Walk across the Marsh
    (pp. 20-33)

    On an apple-crisp October morning, a couple of hours after daybreak, I’m at the edge of another Georgia salt marsh—off Skidaway, a half-wild, half-resort sea island near Savannah, seventy miles north of Brunswick. I’m about to follow a muddy path that winds a few hundred yards across the marsh and then across a hammock, a small island. The path ends at my destination, a tidal creek on the other side of the hammock.

    Raccoons and marsh rabbits probably carved the path. The creatures often build networks of narrow, muddy trails through the spartina on their nightly feeding forays. Local...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Tide Watching
    (pp. 34-57)

    On a glorious June morning on the South Carolina coast, the tide is out and a salty tang suffuses the air. I’m tarrying on my brother Wilson’s splintery, barnacle-encrusted dock, which juts into a tidal creek. The little stream twists and curves through the salt marsh in back of my old home on John’s Island. The spartina is lush, mint green, and summertime beautiful. Red-winged blackbirds questing for insects wheel and swoop through the cloudless blue sky and light among the spartina stalks.

    With the tide out, the creek is little more than a trickle. Its exposed bottom is mostly...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Too Big for Its Britches
    (pp. 58-75)

    After a spell of tide watching, I’m hot and thirsty. I stroll over to the nearby home of my brother Carl and his wife, Mildred, and plop down in their breakfast nook for a glass of iced tea. Through a lace-curtained window we can see the Stono’s calm blue waters and glimmering salt marsh. In the short spartina a great egret stands still as a statue, waiting to snatch a fish or unwary fiddler. A fisherman in a bateau putt-putts down the river.

    Mildred, seventy-four, wonders how much longer she’ll have this tranquil scene to enjoy. She worries that John’s...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Farms in the River
    (pp. 76-96)

    On a radiant day in October I’m hunkered down on the passenger bench of Charlie Phillips’s airboat, which is skittering over the mirror-smooth water of the Sapelo River in McIntosh County, Georgia. I wear industrial-strength earmuffs to guard my hearing from the piercing whine of the five-hundred-horsepower gm engine that spins two huge counter-rotating propellers and hurtles us down the river. The airboat’s aluminum frame barely skims the water.

    Lean, bearded, and tanned, Charlie, fifty-six, occupies the pilot’s seat directly behind me. Proudly calling himself a fishmonger, he buys fish, shrimp, crabs, and oysters from local fishermen and processes them...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Gone with the Flow
    (pp. 97-115)

    So much fresh water comes down the Altamaha River that some people liken it to the Nile. In a normal rainfall year the Altamaha pumps more than three trillion gallons of fresh water—a hundred thousand gallons per second—into the Atlantic Ocean, onesixth of the South Atlantic Bight’s entire freshwater complement.¹ The great outpouring makes the river the third-largest supplier of fresh water on the Eastern Seaboard.

    With a watershed basin encompassing fourteen thousand square miles, the Altamaha is also the largest intact, free-flowing river system on the East Coast. Its headwaters rise some 250 miles from the sea,...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN A Tale of Two Rivers
    (pp. 116-129)

    Some seventy miles north of the Altamaha, the Savannah River threads its way to the sea between Georgia and South Carolina, forming the boundary between the two states. The Savannah and the Altamaha are alike in many ways. Both are alluvial rivers that rise in the mountains and Piedmont and meander across the Coastal Plain to the ocean. Their waters transport tons of nutrient-laden sediments that help maintain coastal islands and salt marshes. Their broad floodplains harbor rich bottomland hardwood forests of haunting beauty and amazing wildlife diversity. Both form wide deltas and empty into extensive estuaries fringed by expansive...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT An Endangered Culture
    (pp. 130-155)

    After the civil war, legions of freed slaves who had toiled on the vast rice and cotton plantations of the Southeast coast formed close-knit societies. Many of their communities were carved from the old antebellum plantations. A rich, unique culture—the Gullah-Geechee—evolved among them. The name Gullah referred mostly to the people in South Carolina; Geechee, to those in Georgia.¹

    The Gullah-Geechee folk thrived on the remote sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina, turning to the broad estuaries, tidal rivers, and salt marshes for sustenance. Gullah fishermen knitted tough fishing nets with needles made of palmett wood. The...

  14. CHAPTER NINE The Institute
    (pp. 156-169)

    The story of how the University of Georgia Marine Institute came to be on Sapelo Island begins on a sunny morning in August 1948. Eugene Odum, then a rising star at the university in the emerging field of ecology, was bird-watching on the island with two colleagues. One of Odum’s colleagues knew Sapelo’s caretaker and had wrangled permission to visit there. The trio’s main goal was to get a glimpse of a chachalaca, an exotic Mexican pheasant that Howard Coffin had introduced as a game bird on Sapelo in the 1920s.

    “We never expected to see Richard Reynolds on the...

  15. CHAPTER TEN Protecting the Marsh?
    (pp. 170-191)

    In 1968 the giant Kerr-McGee Corporation of Oklahoma quietly and methodically bought thousands of acres of marshlands, including several small islands, on Georgia’s coast. That July the company revealed its intentions. It applied to the Georgia State Mineral Leasing Commission for a lease to strip-mine phosphate on the sea islands and in the marshes, river bottoms, and seabed out to the three-mile limit, an area encompassing twenty-five thousand acres near Savannah in Chatham County.¹

    The company said it would take three to five million tons of phosphate per year from Georgia’s marshes and estuaries, three to five times more than...

  16. CHAPTER ELEVEN Saving the Oyster
    (pp. 192-222)

    The eastern oyster is not a handsome creature; when its hinged shell is tightly shut, it looks more like a rock than a living animal. Pry it open and it’s hardly more appealing. And yet this featureless blob is one of the most vital animals in the salt marsh and estuary. Without it, many other marine species would suffer and perhaps even perish. Oysters clean the water, recycle nutrients, and regulate energy flow—all functions critical to keeping estuaries and salt marshes healthy and balanced. Oyster meat is nutritious food for a host of other creatures. The dense, rugged reefs...

  17. CHAPTER TWELVE Saving the Marsh
    (pp. 223-236)

    Several times a week, Randy Buck runs a boat with an ailing outboard motor up and down the Jerico River in coastal Georgia to help diagnose the engine’s problems. “It’s like an automobile mechanic taking a car out for a test drive,” he says. Buck makes a living fixing outboard motors at his cluttered boatyard next to the Jerico in Liberty County.

    During the test runs, he seldom fails to notice the expansive salt marsh stretching like a waving meadow on each side of the tidal river. “I know that marsh like the back of my hand,” he says.


  18. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Rice Fields and Causeways
    (pp. 237-247)

    Nature’s formidable power—searing droughts and shrieking hurricanes—can wreak havoc on salt marshes, but the greatest danger stems from what humans do to them. When nature deals a harsh blow, marshes often bounce back on their own, as they did from the drought-inflicted diebacks. But when humans build a road across a marsh or dredge it or “reclaim” it to expand a city, the destruction usually is forever. Reviving the marsh may be like trying to resuscitate the dead. The Georgia legislature said as much in 1970 when it passed the landmark Coastal Marshlands Protection Act: “The coastal marshlands...

  19. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Bridging the Marsh
    (pp. 248-266)

    On a sunny day in early November I’m again on the Stono River near my old home on John’s Island, South Carolina, cruising down the tranquil stream in a small johnboat on the rising tide. My destination is directly ahead—a small marsh hammock of about five acres surrounded by a salt marsh tinged a mellow brown. I ease the boat up to the marsh edge and kill the little Mercury engine. With a stout paddle, I push, prod, and pole through the spartina until the boat’s aluminum bow scrapes against a sandy salt flat. From there it’s only a...

  20. CHAPTER FIFTEEN The Ultimate Price
    (pp. 267-283)

    Some creatures have paid dearly—extinction—because of marsh destruction, pollution, and other coastal ills. Others may be headed that way if their environments do not improve. These are the stories of three of them.

    For the dusky seaside sparrow, the end came with a lonely twitter. Always reclusive in the Florida salt marshes it once inhabited, the subspecies became extinct on June 16, 1987. The last individual, a twelve-year-old male named Orange Band, died in a cage at Disney World’s zoological park. Its final resting place—the repository of the last of its kind—is a glass bottle in...

  21. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Living on the Edge
    (pp. 284-299)

    Since 2004, scientists have pursued dozens of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the picturesque tidal creeks and rivers—collectively known as the Turtle River–Brunswick River Estuary—winding through poet Sidney Lanier’s famous marshes of Glynn in Georgia. They fire retrievable darts into the animals’ sleek hides for skin and blubber samples. They capture the creatures in sturdy nets and give them on-the-spot, head-to-fluke checkups as thorough as many humans get. And they do postmortems on the dead dolphins that occasionally wash up on mudflats and beaches.

    Pollution is the reason for these studies. With its four national-priority Superfund sites and...

  22. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN The Last Season
    (pp. 300-310)

    As the southeast’s great oyster reefs and canning industry faded in the early 1900s, a new commercial fishery was emerging—shrimping. Old World fishermen from Spain, Portugal, and Sicily were drawn to the Southeast coast, particularly the area around Fernandina Beach, Florida, by the abundant, delicious shrimp. At the time, shrimping was a laborious and exhausting endeavor with little financial return. Catching shrimp in any desirable quantity required the use of cumbersome, heavy haul-seine nets pulled by rowboat or sailboat. If shrimping were to become a profitable pursuit, more efficient harvesting methods had to be devised.

    The modern shrimping industry...

  23. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN The Beloved Land
    (pp. 311-325)

    Few natural places on the East Coast can match South Carolina’s ace Basin—it is remote, biologically rich, and superbly beautiful. Three of South Carolina’s most scenic free-flowing rivers—the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto—join here to form one of the largest, least-developed watersheds on the Eastern Seaboard. Gently flowing to the sea, the blackwater streams meander in turn past cypress swamps, historic plantations, old rice fields, fertile farmland, maritime forests, barrier islands, and abundant salt marshes. They empty into one of the Southeast’s most productive estuaries, Saint Helena Sound.

    Encompassing some 1.6 million acres south of Charleston, the ace...

    (pp. 326-332)

    Most of this book has been a portrayal of the ills facing the Southeast coast and the obstacles that groups and individuals face in trying to resolve them. There is no shortage of recommendations and guidelines for protecting the coast. In general, coastal experts agree on several approaches to ward off environmental degradation along the seashore. Some key recommendations include the following.

    At the state and county level:

    Take a cue from the ace Basin Project in South Carolina. Obtain conservation easements and purchase land development rights from landowners to permanently protect the land. To protect the water, you must...

  25. NOTES
    (pp. 333-356)
  26. INDEX
    (pp. 357-367)