Opening paragraphs

Marshes of the Ocean Shore

Thesis | Themes | Paragraphs | Terminology


Photographs by John Dukes & Kevin Dixon, both Rollins Alumni.

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Estuarine marshes persist along tidal seas, such as these coastal grasslands near the Suwannee River.

Opening remarks:

"A natural reciprocal nurturing of ocean and earth creates abundant wildlife in coastal wetlands. Here, salt and fresh water flow together in tidal marshes, creating rare shorelines of unsurpassed natural fertility by converting solar energy into food. Swelling tidal fluctuations recycle vital nutrients that encourage rapid vegetation growth followed by quick decay..... Both native and migratory wildlife thrive on the tide-mulched marsh grass fields."

(Siry, p. 3.)

Estuaries, or mouths of rivers as they enter the sea, are a geographical unit of enormous, historical importance because of their ecology, cultural transformation, and numerous economic values.

"Throughout the nation today a series of state and federal estuarine refuges exist as quiet testimony to the ideals, efforts and commitment of local conservation groups, planners, engineers, and scientists. These advocates possess a resolute maturity in asserting that some places must be set aside for future generations because, as Rachel Carson once remarked, 'man's way is not always the best.'"

(p. 17.)

1 Introduction

"The river valleys of the Atlantic shore cut through the coastal plain, creating large numbers of estuaries, many of which are bordered by extensive tidal marshes.

Nauset mashes, Mass.

These coastal wetlands have been held in public trust since the original colonial grants. Unlike rights in other portions of the public domain, the public rights to fishing, hunting, and navigation on tidal lands could not be extinguished by sale to private concerns."

(p. 18.)

Nauset marsh and adjacent moving dune system in Orleans on Cape Cod; as examples of a drowned river valley.

2 A Frontier of Estuaries

Canal"Even prior to the nineteenth century the necessity of marshes was disregarded in favor of a continued reliance on estuarine dredging and coastal reclamation. As the image of the garden symbolized the eighteenth century intellectual recognition of humanity's role in taming and cultivating wild landscapes, the creation of a seaside agrarian environment encouraged the replacement of swamps and marshes with diked meadows or farmlands. Urban growth, too, fostered dumping, drainage canals, wharves and commercial shoreline development. As diseases repeatedly swept the crammed and dingy tidewater cities, the pastoral image of the garden became a paramount influence on scientists and writers, relegating noxious and obstructing coastal wetlands to a role as inefficient backwaters."

(pp. 32-33.)

The Delaware Canal once a benchmark of Yankee ingenuity and a sign of progress. The painting is from 1893 of the Delaware and Hudson Canal by Theodore Robinson (July 3, 1852 – April 2, 1896) who was an American painter best known for his impressionist landscapes. Robinson was one of the first American artists to take up impressionism in the late 1880s.

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3 The Legacy of The Seashore Naturalists

tidal anemone"Tidelands, however, represented a complex problem of public administration depending on the coastal territory in question. The proprietary responsibility for these wetlands that had existed in the colonies was derived from the crown, to be held in perpetual trust for the promotion of navigation and the public privileges of fishing and hunting."

(p. 39.) 

Starfish ( Pisaster sp.) and green anemones ( Anthopleura sp. ) are denizens of the intertidal shallows; this land and water between the tides belong to all people by law and custom."

4 Commerce and The Public Trust

National sympathy for protecting nature dramatically appeared among elite professionals before the Civil War. These preservation advocates conceived the intellectual and tactical foundations of future federal resource protection policies -- especially for fisheries, wildlife, land and water.

(p. 62.)


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5 Oceanography and Ecology in Early Federal Bureaus

Salmon habitat"After the War between the States, the doleful predictions of George Perkins Marsh concerning fisheries and estuarine habitats churned in the mind of his confidant and supporter, Spencer Fullerton Baird. As a naturalist and assistant director of the Smithsonian Institution, Baird knew that sport and commercial fisheries were dependent on anadromous fish. These fishes lived most of their existence in the sea but required the fresh-water river sources to spawn the next generation of salmon, herring, or shad. Often the juveniles of these species lingered in the estuaries, where a rich supply of food, nourished the young."

(p. 83.)

A sign alerting hikers to the necessity of protecting necessary streams for fisheries along the Marin County California shore; salmon are anadromous fish that need the full length of the river to grow up in the sea.

6 The New Ecology and The New Ecological Ethic

saltmarsh"At the turn of the century ecology and economics agreed on the classification of tidal marshes as obstructing wastelands. Resource economics determined the 'best' use of land solely from the human and utilitarian perspectives. The initial findings of terrestrial and marine biologists supported policies to make human 'improvements' over nature's perceived inefficiency. However, in the 1930s and 1940s a number of scientists, including wildlife biologist, Aldo Leopold, would begin to demonstrate that the political and economic values assigned to coastal wetlands and other wild areas conflicted with their biological integrity."


Sandhill Cranes in a Florida wetland; Leopold said that "a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility."

7 Estuaries and The New Ecology

"The expansion of wisdom is a difficult task for an individual, let alone a society. In democratic cultures wisdom often may be overlooked at the voting boot in the formulation of policy. For citizens and civil servants alike, confronting popular notions of efficacy and justice takes courage. Rachel Louise Carson was an advocate of unpopular causes, including fish and bird protection, preservation of wild seashores, and opposition to heedless use of 'miracle' technologies. Her final, best known attack on the indiscriminate uses of DDT as an insecticide was only one part of her larger and more positive view of the world and humanity's place in the eco-energetic scheme.... More than any other scientist she popularized the oceans and the shores, with a profoundly religious respect for nature and a practical appreciation for human ignorance. A contemporary of her fellow preservation ecologist, Aldo Leopold, Carson focused more explicitly than he on oceans and shores."

(p. 134.)

A graph showing the extent to which Nitrogen and Phosphorus are overloading the coastal wetland ecology and destroying salt marshes.

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8 Politics and The Preservation of Estuaries

saltmarsh"The pejorative implications of the words morass, slough, muck and miasma still associated with wetlands need no comment, These terms are common synonyms for obstruction, nuisance and disease. Yet as part of the national 'battle to preserve the common estate,' coastal marshes and tidal flats became the focus of a major drive for the protection of natural resources during the late 1950s."


A Maryland farm astride salt marshes of the nation's largest estuary the Chesapeake Bay.

9 Americans and The Tidal Seas

Marsh Bolsa Chica Beach, California"As the American nation has grown older, its attitudes toward its natural resources have changed and matured. Its legal underpinnings for environmental policies have been reinterpreted and reformulated to accommodate the changing understandings and values. The estuarine preservation ideal that emerged in the mid- to late 1960s is one of the most recent developments in American ideas concerning resource stewardship."

(p. 188.)

The Bolsa Chica salt marshes astride Newport Bay are contested land in Orange County, California once among the larger estuaries on the Pacific Coast before it was filled in for upper class housing.

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Marshes of the Ocean Shore

Estuarine protection

Siry Cover Book overview : Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,


A, C, E, L, S, Su, T, W.

Algae - single celled organisms that account for productivity in certain ecological systems because they can photosynthesize water, carbon dioxide and light from the sun. They form the base of many aquatic and marine food chains. i.e. Diatoms.

Bay - a relatively shallow extension of the ocean into the land lying adjacent to the continental shelf.

Beach - a deposition of sand along a shore line, often the quartz, coral or volcanic material of small grain size beside the sea.

Barrier Island - areas along usually sinking coastlines with very high wave energy that piles up sand or pebbles along the shore in such a way that the island forms a dam between the dry land of the continent and the ocean. The term is better characterized as a linear island in the process of moving along the coast with the longshore currents and rising sea levels.

Coastal - from the Latin word "costa" meaning the edge. In this case the border of the land where it meets the sea, ocean or some other large body of water.

Detritus - technical term for decayed or decaying vegetational, plant and fungal material derived from land or sea creatures that is carried by currents generated by tides or falling water or blown across distances by prevailing winds.

Ecotone - the concept in ecology that there is a transition zone between two discernibly distinct biological communities withe elements of both of these in the intermediate zone between them.

Edge effect - the idea in ecology that a transition area between two different ecological associations, such as a forest and a grassland, is often more productive because of a greater number of species from each of the adjacent areas utilize the boundary between those areas to acquire sustenance.

Estuary - a coastal body of water where a river meets the ocean and thus a brackish mixing area of fresh water drainage with higher salinity marine water of unsurpassed fertility and productivity unless they are polluted and filled from dredging.

Filter feeder - an organism, generally aquatic, marine, or estuarine, that exists by filtering out the medium in which it lives and extracting detritus which is rich in nutrients, vitamins and minerals for nutrition. A major contributor to the food web or feeding chain in areas, such as oyster beds, mussels on rocky shores, or clams and cockles along mud flats, or scallops in the sea.

Geographical regeneration - a concept that George Perkins Marsh described based on his 1864 book, Man and Nature that in describing humans as a force of geological proportions in changing the face of the planet, human civilization was now required to restore soil, water, fisheries, wildlife & agricultural resources for cities to endure.

Lagoon - usually a coastal body of water that has a higher salt concentration than the adjacent ocean or rivers. They can also be found in deserts.

Littoral - refers to the shoreline, derived from the Latin word for the shore, bank, or edge of a water body.

Mangrove - a type of tropical marine shore vegetation that often dominates estuaries and is characterized by evergreen trees of very distinct species that can under optimal climatic conditions form a dense canopy forest that is a main contributor to the nutritional productivity for shrimp, crabs and lobsters; and thus forms one basis of shoreline food chains in coastal tropical areas.

Marsh - a type of temperate marine, estuarine and lake or river shoreline vegetation characterized by water tolerant grasses, reeds, algae, and blue-green bacterium.wacassassa bay

Usually a nursery, or breeding, or feeding area for fish, birds and other wildlife.


Mud flat - deposited fine grained material, usually found where sluggish current or no current at all allows silt (fine grained sediment) to settle to the bottom of a water body along a river, lake or particularly beside tidal streams.

Public Trust Doctrine - derived from Roman and English Common Law, a legal body of decisions holding that in certain designated natural areas, such as the bottom of rivers, lakes, streams and estuaries, land --that is or can be covered seasonally by water-- is of such great importance that its ownership is held by no one person and thus its use is restricted by law. Contrast with public domain.


Sea grass - a type of flowering plant that grows in shallow marine or estuarine water where sunlight may penetrate to the bottom --or substrate-- of the basin.

Spartina grass - a type of flowering plant that occupies the estuarine, or river marshes along shores with a temperate climate.

Sound - an unusually constricted, or closed in body of marine water that floods into coastal areas.

SOvereign lands Sovereign lands - By application of English custom derived from Roman law, those areas of submerged land that belong to the King, Queen, Emperor, Empress, or some other plenary authority exercising absolute power over subjects in a designated territory. In the US practice these are property of the states and refer to property beneath any water body of significant size.

A, C, Su, T, W.

Succession - the idea in ecology that vegetation and climate can over a very long period of time change the character of plant associations in a place. Over several generations plants and animals alter the underlying conditions of soil (substrate), nutrients, and available sunlight as to change the association of dominant plants and fungus. With these vegetational changes over time comes an alteration of the animals dependent on plants and soil nutrients for their safety, survival, and sustenance.


Sub littoral zone - that area below the water level at all times of the year. Basically submerged areas along a shore that can have characteristic wetland vegetation.

Tide - the daily changes in the surface elevation of the sea with respect to the land lying along the shore.

tidal lands

Tidelands - generally the area along a river affected by the daily fluctuation of ocean tides; specifically the name given to oil leases in state waters extending from below the tide line out over the continental shelf to the three or ten mile limit depending on the state in question. A controversy that arose after World War Two over the federal and state control of oil drilling leases under the ocean. decided in favor of the several coastal states.

Tidewater - that extensive land area of the Eastern United States form roughly Boston, Massachusetts to Brownsville, Texas, where the affects of the sea with respect to the land lying along the shore of estuaries, bays, rivers and streams is so pronounced that small sailing vessels may ride the tide in both an upstream or a downstream direction depending upon the flood or ebb of ocean waters.

marshes Wetland - officially designated vegetational areas that have soil characterized by seasonal or periodic flooding, and that tolerate permanent or fluctuating water conditions over time (called a hydro period). Otherwise a kind of oxymoron that suggests nature is more complicated than our language is capable of cleverly expressing in sufficient detail because land implies dry land.



Zonation - the name given in ecology and natural history to the pattern of vegetational associations according to specific features of a habitat or area with respect to elevation, substrate (soils), water, slope, or sun angle.

A, C, L, M.

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Each age or period defines natural features, economic value and laws differently depending on their technological capacity and knowledge of their surroundings.

There is a legacy in American, English and Roman legal theory, or jurisprudence that articulated a perpetual public interest in certain landscape features based on their character, geography, topography and functional processes.

Geographical information grew slowly in America, but was seen from the time of colonial settlement and later by John Quincy Adams as an overriding responsibility of a central government to provide society with adequate surveys, maps, topographical and bathymetric information and the location of useful resources.

Technology is a two-edged sword allowing for the accumulation of knowledge and expanding the capacity to alter our surroundings to better suit human demands, both material and spiritual.

Science, or the knowledge of physical, chemical, geological and biological information about the universe, has the capacity to alter our sensitivities to the world around us.

Population growth, transportation demands, increasing wealth and the demand for a greater variety of leisure activities all converged after world war two placing unusually sharp and conflicting demands on limited coastal, river and natural resources.

Despite what some historians have suggested concerning the origins of conservation emerging from a concern for parks, forests and agriculture, there is evidence to show that fisheries, wildlife and river pollution as these affected human health and urban development were equally old sources of the impulse to protect natural areas from damaging intrusions. Estuaries or river mouths were so transformed that the process of their reclamation gave rise to concern for conservation along coastal areas bordering low lying wetlands.

Preservation of cultural and natural resources predated the rise of conservation in North America. Conservation arose late in the 19th century and referred to both a keeping from harm and the wise use of natural resources for the long-term and most beneficial uses by a majority of the population. Preservation of valued naturally significant or culturally memorable places can be dated to before the Civil War.

In both the redesign of urban landscapes and the necessity of controlling rivers along an entire watershed, the emergence before the civil war of a practice restoring natural harmonies arose and was later characterized as "geographical regeneration," by G. P. Marsh.

Politics of protection

Index to island plans

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Viewed since the Renaissance in Europe and the colonial period in the Americas as obstacles to be overcome, coastal wetlands were altered, filled and drained as beneficial examples of human achievement until the mid twentieth century. By the 1960s ecologists determined these natural areas washed by undulating tides were sources of unsurpassed biological wealth of a measurable magnitude compared to other ecosystems.

| related vocabulary |

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Joseph V. Siry,
Marshes of the Ocean Shore: The Development of an Ecological Ethic.
College Station: Texas: Texas A & M University Press, 1984.

Notes on the Text

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