Florida’s beaches are fascinating. On its East Coast sandy beaches are shaped by the merciless pounding from the Atlantic’s waves. These beaches are “high energy” beaches. In contrast, on the West Coast from about Citrus County north, around the bend to Apalachicola Bay, the coastal wetlands are “low energy“ landforms, without the pounding waves and resultant sand dunes, but teeming with a vast complexity of plant and animal life. Salt marshes, called tidal marshes, occur in the low-energy estuarine areas where fresh waters from rivers and rain fall off confront the Gulf’s salt waters. Only the hardiest of life handles the daily trashing from the tidal fluctuations of the salt and fresh water.
Salt marshes are colorful, with dark sawgrass, the marsh’s sedge on its freshwater side, and colorful, yellowish cordgrass in the areas with salt water tidal flooding or domination. Shortly after my first serious look at a salt marsh, in November 2009, about the time I started these blogs, I published The Salt Marsh – The Real Florida, and wrote this:
The Withlacooche Gulf Preserve, near Crystal River, contains a vast salt marsh, fed by the pure spring water of the Crystal River. The salt marsh is part of the estuarine, separating the Gulf of Mexico from the inland waters. At low tides, the fresh waters dominate; at high tides, the salt waters submerge the marsh. The environment is harsh, the communities biologically diverse, capable of the constantly changing environments. The marsh terrain is primarily grassland, dotted with islands, hammocks of trees more suitable for the high ground. The bright, yellow grasses are Beach Cordgrass, or Spartina, indicative of the presence of salt. These grasses live closest to the brackish waters of the marsh. 60% of the marsh grasses are the darker Needle Rush, further from the brackish water. Behind the Needle Rush is Saw Grass, a hardy grass that requires but a few nutrients to exist. The inner beauty of a salt marsh can easily be overlooked. There are no waterfalls, mountains or rolling hills. But there is a quiet beauty and tranquility worth exploration.
With a photographer’s eye, I had focused on the beauty of the marsh. What I have since learned is that salt marshes are vital, living parts of our ecosystems. Literally, salt marshes are the “salt“ of our earth.
Tidal marsh systems receive huge quantities of minerals (washed from eroded mountain rock) and of plant and animal remains. The living organisms in the marshes combine these materials into enormous quantities of living things. Among the members of water-borne detritus are microbes so tiny, and present in such astronomical numbers, as to stagger the imagination. Microbes work on every particle of organic material that is carried into the water…. (producing a rich fertilizer in the marsh mud).
Starting in the 1930s and 1940s, many of Florida’s marshlands were drained, ditched and filled to further development. Some, including marshes around Tampa Bay, were used as dumping grounds for gypsum and phosphate waste, forever changing the nature of the affected marshes. Between 1940 and 1978 40% of Tampa Bay’s salt marshes were destroyed, and similar experiences occurred elsewhere in the state. Despite continuing growth pressures, Florida has begun to protect these valuable resources, and has now established 41 Aquatic Preserves. The Aquatic Preserves have a special beauty all their own, but their prime purpose is environmental protection, not only for our wildlife, but of the waters so necessary for all of life.
The fertilized marshes support lush plant growth that feeds fish and a vast array of animal life, many of which provide food for higher species of the food chain. Salt marshes are extremely productive biologically, providing spawning, nursery and feeding grounds for many of the ocean’s shrimps, crabs, oysters and fish. In fact, estuaries and their salt marshes provide habitats for at least 75% of Florida’s commercial and recreational shellfish, crustaceans and fish. Thus, the diminution of the marshes has a dramatic adverse effect on our food supply.
Before the fresh waters find their way to the Gulf, the salt marsh grasses filter pollution brought into the marshes by the rivers feeding the estuaries. The marshes also stabilize sediments and buffer island areas and land from storms.
The unknown effect on this valuable ecosystem will be the rising Gulf Waters. Will the intrusion of salt out-balance the fresh water? What will be the effect on fish and other aquatic life? Hopefully, the study of the long-term effect of rising waters in Gulf of Mexico estuaries, started in October 2010 by the Nature Conservancy will provide insight.
From January 14, 2011 through March 13, 2011, the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, will have an important exhibition, Disappearing Florida. I will be privileged to be a participating photo-artist along with Carlton Ward, Jr., Kevin Boldenow, and Laurie Excell. Week-long photography courses will also be taught by Laurie Excell and Joel Sartore of the National Geographic Society, author of Rare, a book about disappearing species. Over the next several weeks, we will continue our look at Disappearing Florida. This is the sixth in the series.