In The World of the Salt Marsh, Charles Seabrook, an environmental writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other publications, explores one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet—the salt marsh along the Southeast coast of the United States.
Home to a diverse blend of flora and fauna, the salt marsh constitutes a vital area between the land and the sea, but real estate development and pollution are threatening large swaths of the salt marsh across South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
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Here, Seabrook discusses his upbringing along the salt marsh, the culture surrounding it, and what must be done to save it—in addition to other elements chronicled in his engaging book, which we called an “excellent wake-up call about the need to prevent the destruction of our natural environment.”
For our readers unfamiliar with the salt marsh, could you tell me about the landscape and the incredible productivity of the animals and plants found there?
If you drive along some of the major thoroughfares, such as I-95 and U.S. Hwy. 17, that parallel the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, you can’t help but notice the great expanses of salt marsh that seem to stretch unbroken to the horizon. They are the most visible features along the coast. Many travelers regard them as little more than smelly wastelands.
But we now know from decades of research and observations that salt marshes are some of the most productive ecosystems in the world, mostly because the tides twice a day bring in loads of nutrients and sediments and haul away wastes. The nutrients nourish the most important plant of the salt marsh, Spartina alterniflora, or smooth cordgrass, which provides food and shelter for a wide array of creatures. The salt marshes serve as nurseries for more than 80 percent of commercial seafood species, including shrimp, blue crabs and oysters. Other creatures thrive there as well. More than a million fiddler crabs, for instance, may inhabit a single acre of healthy salt marsh. An array of water birds flocks to the marsh to feed on the fiddlers and other creatures in the marsh.
The marshes also protect the land from storms blowing in from the sea, and they act as nature’s kidneys in that they filter out and neutralize an incredible amount of noxious chemicals washing off the land. To me, though, the salt marshes are beautiful places. Many people just like to sit and look out over the marshes and enjoy the serenity, like looking out at a peaceful valley in the mountains.
Given that productivity, why is there so little national attention to the problems facing this area?
Well, for one thing, salt marshes are not spectacular landscapes like craggy, snow-capped mountains or rugged canyons. They don’t capture one’s attention as soaring peaks or deep canyons do. Marshes are taken for granted. You can’t actually see this great productivity, like you can with a ripening field of corn or an orchard loaded with apples. The productivity of a salt marsh is not readily apparent, probably because most of it occurs in the water.
Most people probably regard the marshes as of little economic and ecological importance. Like I said, many people probably think of them as vast wastelands. A major reason for that, I think, is a lack of understanding of the salt marshes among the general public.
But I see that turning around. There are a lot of good, effective programs that teach school children, and adults, too, about the importance of salt marshes. In addition to classroom work, thousands of school kids go on field trips each year to the coast to learn specifically about the salt marshes.
An overall problem, though, is a general lack of environmental awareness nationwide. People should understand that when you build subdivisions, shopping centers, factories, etc., the environment pays a price. That’s true no matter if the development occurs next to a coastal salt marsh, on former farmland or on the side of a mountain.
What were the most memorable experiences for you growing up along the salt marsh?
I’ve had many good times in the salt marsh. In my childhood, I spent many a day in the marsh in back of my boyhood home on John’s Island, S.C. I guess that’s why I grew to love salt marshes so much. I loved the unique sulfide smell of the marsh. It’s the smell I now equate most with my childhood, though some people don’t care for it, especially if they’re visiting the coast for the first time.
One memorable experience was when I once took a cousin, who was somewhat of a bully, from up north walking with me in the salt marsh. He was a little nervous about doing so. He downright panicked when he got bogged nearly to his armpits in some “pluff mud.” He started screaming like hell and thought he was going to die. It was a major struggle and ordeal for me to get him free, but I finally did. My cousin then headed straight back to shore and said he would never set foot in that “damned marsh” again.
In the book, you discuss real estate development and the negative effects on the marshes. What are some of the other problems facing the marshlands?
Damage to the marshlands can begin far upstream, hundreds of miles inland. The wastes that wash off city streets and rooftops and parking lots far inland eventually can end up in salt marshes via rivers flowing to the sea. Fertilizer and pesticides washing off farms also end up in the rivers and ultimately in the marshes.
Salt marshes and the estuaries to which they are vitally connected also need certain amounts of fresh water delivered by the rivers during certain times of the year. Salt marsh creatures have evolved over eons to depend on the seasonal pulses of fresh water for reproduction and survival. When the natural flow of fresh water is disrupted by dams, destruction of bottomland hardwood swamps and other factors, the salt marsh creatures may suffer immeasurably.
Another major threat is willy-nilly growth upstream that sucks more fresh water out of rivers and greatly reduces the amount reaching the coast. Still another problem is weak enforcement of environmental laws by government officials. Stronger enforcement might deter a lot of the illegal activity, such as illegal construction and waste dumping, that threatens the ruination of some marshlands. Overfishing also is causing problems in some areas.
For readers interested in getting involved, what are some organizations doing the best work for the marshes?
Several groups are working hard to protect the Southeast coast’s marshes, estuaries and tidal rivers, including the North Carolina Coastal Federation, the Coastal Conservation in South Carolina, the Center for a Sustainable Coast in Georgia and the Coastal Conservation Association in Florida (CCA Florida). The Southern Environmental Law Center also works closely with the environmental groups and files legal action when necessary to protect the Southeast’s salt marshes.
In addition, there are also several groups devoted to protecting specific rivers, estuaries and watersheds along the coast, such as the Altamaha Riverkeeper and the Savannah Riverkeeper in Georgia, the North Carolina Riverkeepers and Riverkeeper Alliance, the St. Johns Riverkeeper in Florida and the Winyah Rivers Foundation in South Carolina.
Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor of Kirkus.