This study evaluates the response of three salt marshes, associated with the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge (Maine), to the practice of ditch plugging. Drainage ditches, originally dug to drain the marsh for mosquito control or to facilitate salt hay farming, are plugged with marsh peat in an effort to impound water upstream of the plug, raise water table levels in the marsh, and increase surface water habitat. At two study sites, Moody Marsh and Granite Point Road Marsh, ditch plugs were installed in spring 2000. Monitoring of hydrology, vegetation, nekton and bird utilization, and marsh development processes was conducted in 1999, before ditch plugging, and then in 2000 and 2001 (all parameters except nekton), after ditch plugging. Each study site had a control marsh that was monitored simultaneously with the plugged marsh, and thus, we employed a BACI study design (before, after, control, impact). A third site, Marshall Point Road Marsh, was plugged in 1998. Monitoring of the plugged and control sites was conducted in 1999 and 2000, with limited monitoring in 2001, thus there was no ?before? plug monitoring. With ditch plugging, water table levels increased toward the marsh surface and the areal extent of standing water increased. Responding to a wetter substrate, a vegetation change from high marsh species (e.g., Spartina patens) to those more tolerant of flooded conditions (e.g., Spartina alterniflora) was noted at two of the three ditch plugged sites. Initial response of the nekton community (fishes and decapod crustaceans) was evaluated by monitoring utilization of salt marsh pools using a 1m2 enclosure trap. In general, nekton species richness, density, and community structure remained unchanged following ditch plugging at the Moody and Granite Point sites. At Marshall Point, species richness and density (number of individuals per m2) were significantly greater in the experimental plugged marsh than the control marsh (<2% of the control marsh was open water habitat vs. 11% of the plugged marsh). The response of birds, categorized as waterfowl & waterbirds, shorebirds & wading birds, gulls & terns, and miscellaneous (raptors, passerines, other), was variable. Following ditch plugging, bird species richness increased at the Granite Point site (1999 pre-plug = 15.4, 2000 post-plug = 26.2, 2001 post-plug = 38.7). Because of a low sample size at Moody Marsh, reliable statements on species richness cannot be made. Density of birds (no. of birds per ha) remained unchanged with ditch plugging at Granite Point Marsh, although there was a strong, but not statistically significant, trend toward increased density. This study only reports on initial responses of marsh functions to ditch plugging. Monitoring should continue at these sites, and perhaps at additional sites, for the next decade or so. A monitoring plan is recommended. Long-term monitoring will include evaluation of salt marsh development processes using SET (surface elevation table) methodology. There is concern, although not confirmed, that as ditch-plugged marshes become wetter and marsh grass production declines their ability to keep pace with sea level rise could be jeopardized. It is suggested that ditch plugging should be considered an experimental marsh management technique. Additional monitoring on the physical and habitat responses of ditch-plugged marshes is required, along with assessments of other techniques aimed at restoring open water habitat to the marsh surface.
Additional publication details
Final report: Initial ecosystem response of salt marshes to ditch plugging and pool creation: Experiments at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge (Maine)
USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Coastal Research Field Station, University of Rhode Island