50% of Salt Marshes at Risk of Destruction, Gullah/Geechee Nation Fights Back

Image: Brian Bill, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A new study has found that half of the nation’s tidal marshes are at risk of being destroyed by sea-level rise, most of them along the southern coasts of the contiguous U.S.

Now, members of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, whose one million residents live along coastal areas stretching from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, are fighting to preserve these critical habitats and the cultural value they’ve provided for generations.

Why This Matters: Salt marshes have a reputation as smelly and swampy, but they provide an essential service to our oceans and the greater environment. 75% of regional fish species rely on salt marshes at some point in their lifecycle for food, refuge, and nursing grounds. They’re also valuable as buffers against flooding and act as sponges that soak up floodwaters and filter runoff.

The Gullah/Geechee Nation hopes to protect and restore their salt marshes as well. “The waterways are sacred to us and provide our food. Every native Gullah/Geechee grew up breathing in the smell of pluff mud as we proceeded out to get the family meals of fish, shrimp, oysters, clams, and blue crabs,” said Chieftess and Head of State, Queen Quet. “Saltmarsh is not something that we simply go through or to; it’s part of our family, too. Our lives depend on it.”

A Sinking Feeling: Research from Holmquist et al. found that northerly marshes and southerly marshes differed in vulnerability to sea-level rise. Using tide gauge data, soil formation rates, and local maps of water level, elevation, and land cover, they found that Northern tidal marshes were less likely to migrate inland due to sea-level rise. Meanwhile, southern marshes were less likely to collect and maintain enough soil to keep up with rising tides. Researchers say they hope that these findings can help officials prioritize and plan future conservation efforts. 

The Gullah/Geechee Nation has already gotten started. In May, Queen Quet and other regional community leaders have teamed up with federal, state, and local governments to create the South Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative. The project hopes to conserve one million acres of salt marsh from North Carolina to North Florida through coordinated development plans, restoration projects, and conservation of surrounding biomes.

Queen Quet says that the project is just what the doctor ordered. “The initiative is a perfect fit for the Gullah/Geechee Nation! It suits us like a custom-made garment or a personally crafted vessel that will finally allow us to get other folks to navigate our coast with us in a way that is in harmony with our cultural traditions,” she told Pew Trusts. “I’m looking forward to bringing Gullah/Geechee traditional knowledge into the planning process, but even more than that, I’m looking forward to putting on my hip boots and stepping out into the marsh with my Gullah/Geechee famlee.”

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