Charles Seabrook, The World of the Salt Marsh: Appreciating and Protecting the Tidal Marshes of the Southeastern Atlantic Coast (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 397 pages including an index and notes
The salt marsh is an amazing landscape that is often overlooked or taken for granted. Per square foot, it is one of the most productive areas on our planet and serves many functions: protecting the inland areas from storms, providing recycling and cleansing services to the water, and serving as a nursery for the oceans. And everything must work together. When the balance is lost, the marsh suffers and in the long term we suffer.
I picked up this book in an attempt to learn more about my new home. Although I grew up near the marsh in North Carolina, I never really studied it. Seabrook, a science reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a native of Saint John’s Island in South Carolina (one of the historic African-American island communities–the Gullah-Geechee culture–that is found in the islands along the Southeast Coast). In these pages, he does a wonderful job of sharing the history and culture of those who live along the marsh; informing us of the animals that depend on this terrain; explaining the science, geology and hydrology that makes the marsh work, and presenting the problems facing the salt marsh. Seabrook’s area of study is the South Atlantic Blight (the shoreline from Cape Hatteras to Cape Canaveral).
Seabrook explains the complexity of the marsh. Twice a day, tides move in and out, flushing the marsh with water and sea life only to withdraw it six hours later in which marsh gives some of its riches back to the ocean. This cycle helps both marsh and the ocean, but it is more complicated because fresh water is continually introduced from the land. All of this, mixed in with grass and snails, oysters and crabs, fish and animals, works together to efficiently produce biomass and to cleanse out harmful elements that might destroy the marsh or the oceans.
Seabrook shows, through examples, how little changes can cause major problems. The building of a tidal gate in Savannah, designed to help keep the shipping channels deeper, increased the salinity in the Savannah wetlands which had been a fresh water preserve. The aftermath was dead cypress and the end of wonderful stripe bass fishing as neither the tree nor fish could take to the increase salinity. Other developments, such as the Diamond Causeway (which I drive over several times a week), reduced the salinity in the upper marsh and had an adverse impact on oysters and crabs which was one of the reasons for the closing of a packing factory in Pinpoint. Another problem is the development along the estuaries that feed into the marsh. As trees and natural vegetation is replaced with concrete, asphalt, houses, along with the draining that is needed for golf courses and parking lots, the amount of fresh water (often tainted from oils) going into the marsh causes adversity for salt water species, especially the important grass in salt water marshes. Contaminates such as mercury are even more harmful as he shows in an example of a polluter in the Brunswick, Georgia. When the plant was finally shut down, the owners and managers all received prison sentences for their role in flushing large amounts of mercury into the river that has affect the animal life not only around Brunswick but up and down the coastline.
Much of what Seabrook writes about is loss. Turtles that die in nets, shrimping that is having a harder time competing with factory farms in other parts of the world, native cultures (or at least native for the last 400 years) who are being forced out by developments. But he also speaks of hope. There have been odd groups that have come together to protect the marsh and as we learn how valuable the marsh is, more people see the importance of protecting it. I hope people read this book and realize what a valuable asset the marsh is and truly appreciate it as more than just a beautiful place from which to observe the rising or the setting of the sun.
One range of numbers that Seabrook mentions several places and which has me pondering my impact of living in this area is 10-15%. It appears that when hard surfaces covers more than 10-15% of the land feeding the estuaries that feed the marsh, damage occurs to the saline balance (as well as an increase in pollutants). With the increase in development and the sprawl that is occurring all over the country, but especially in the Southeast, in many places we have surpassed the threshold and need to be very careful less the marsh disappears and we become more exposed and lose an important source of food. Another fact that stuck with me is how special this area is, in the center of the Atlantic Blight, with some of the highest tides in the world. Tides here average nearly nine feet which are a lot more than what I was used to where I grew up a couple hundred miles north.
Yes, I recommend this book! However, I will note for my readers who are in the Carolinas or Florida, that Seabrook primarily focuses on the marsh in Georgia and the southern half of the South Carolina coast (south of Charleston). I would have liked to have learned more about the issues going on further north (there is the issue of deepening the Cape Fear River) and in Florida (where development had a head start over the areas concentrated on within this book).