How does a marsh work for you?

It's a beautiful morning for VIMS Marine Science Day 2008.  Karen Duhring, a scientist with the Center for Coastal Resources Management (CCRM) at VIMS, looks the part of an eco-tour guide donning sunglasses, khakis, and a floppy hat as she leads an interested group to the pier at the tidal marsh.  She begins her presentation by casting her arm toward the open water.

“This marsh is alive and actually creating energy.  How is it doing that?”, she asks pointing to a preteen in the group.  “It’s taking the energy from the sun and converting it into plant material that feeds other organisms in the marsh.  When it dies, the plant decomposes, creating even more food for benthic creatures in the mud.”  The preteen nods his head in agreement. 

Karen continues, “The marsh is an idea nursery area.  Why is that?”, again looking at another youngster in the group.  “Look at the waves in the channel compared to this little protected marsh area.  Small juvenile species can survive in this environment without having to battle the strong currents and waves in the more open waters.”

To summarize her point, Karen discusses the concept of the food web. “The marsh ecosystem is interconnected. The plant matter we just talked about feeds animals either directly or indirectly. Fish use the marsh as nursery area.  Worms and commercially important invertebrates such as clams, crabs and oysters live in the abundant mud. In turn, birds use the marsh to either eat the small fish, reptiles, worms or even these numerous snails that live on the grasses.  So, the marsh is performing what we call “ecological services.”   She pauses to see if everyone understands the term.

Moving the group onward toward the bridge at the freshwater marsh, Karen begins to talk about another ecological service of the wetlands. “Uptake of nutrients by marsh plants actually cleans the water before it gets into the Bay.  The runoff from the Coleman Bridge gets cycled through the freshwater marsh before making its way into the tidal marsh, then out into the York River. For man to replicate these services through technology would cost us thousands of times more.”  The group nods in agreement and I hear a few whisper “Wow” as they grasp the importance of the marsh to their world.

When hearing Karen talk to a group, you can feel her enthusiam for what she does and she has a talent for reaching the audience and transmitting her passion for the environment. As a wetlands scientist, Karen’s current focus is shoreline permit reviews; however, she takes time from her hectic schedule to speak at Garden Club functions about ways shoreline property owners can improve their landscape without hurting the environment.  “As sea levels continue to rise, we have to change our thinking about what’s a good shoreline and what’s bad.  Erosion isn’t necessarily detrimental in every case.  If you have enough buffer, allowing your shoreline to turn into marsh can be beneficial as it attracts wildlife.”  Karen and her colleagues at CCRM are working on educating resource managers and the general public about Living Shorelines and Integrated Shoreline Management concepts that will help guide decisionmakers as wetlands and shorelines are impacted by increases in population, more frequent storm events and rising sea levels.