New study documents wetland loss along Long Island Sound
Nearly a third of the wetlands along Long Island Sound have disappeared since the 1880s, representing a serious loss of this vital resource for coastal communities and for fish and wildlife. The decline has been documented in a study just published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with assistance from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environment and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Conducted under the Long Island Sound Study partnership, the work is the first long-term, Sound-wide assessment of the changes in the area of tidal wetlands.
“This report documents a staggering amount of wetlands that have been lost. It should sound the bell for strong action at every level of government and in the business community to reverse this troubling trend,” said EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith A. Enck. “Wetlands provide enormous economic, environmental and flood protection benefits, but they are threatened by overdevelopment and the impacts of climate change. By working together, government and Long Island Sound communities can strengthen shorelines and the health of wetlands, protecting water quality, fish and wildlife habitats, and coastal communities."
“EPA is committed to taking the actions that are necessary to protect Long Island Sound and ensure that it remains a vibrant ecological and economic resource for the millions of people who live within the watershed and who enjoy the Sound for recreation, study, or economic activities. This report underscores the need to remain vigilant in our protection of remaining wetlands, and to encourage the re-establishment of wetlands when possible,” said Curt Spalding, Regional Administrator of EPA’s New England (Region 1) office.
"In an era of rising seas and more frequent storms, we must work together to protect wetlands that buffer our coast and protect people from storms," said Wendi Weber, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Regional Director. "Scientists, managers and the communities around Long Island Sound can boost coastal sustainability by using this new analysis to set large-scale wetland conservation goals."
The study, “Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Long Island Sound Area: 130-Year Assessment,” estimates that there are 7,814 fewer acres of tidal wetlands around the Sound today compared to the 1880s, with the loss of 5,262 acres in Connecticut and 2,552 in New York. The majority of wetland loss occurred prior to the adoption in the 1970s of federal and state laws to protect wetlands from dredging and filling related to land and port development. The study did find a modest gain since the 1970s in Connecticut wetlands, which increased by 1,123 acres, or 8 percent. New York saw a decline since the 1970s of 674 acres, a 19 percent loss, resulting from several compounding factors including sea level rise. The analysis called for further study to determine causes of this decline. More than 80 percent of wetlands along the Long Island Sound coast are in Connecticut.
“Wetlands are valuable natural and economic resources that provide important benefits such as storm protection, vital habitat for fish and other wildlife, and carbon and nitrogen sequestration,” said Acting Commissioner Basil Seggos of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). “Throughout Long Island Sound and coastal New York, DEC is prioritizing tidal wetland acquisition, development of wetland restoration plans, and infrastructure investments to improve water quality which will aid in our comprehensive efforts to conserve and restore these essential habitats. Trends assessment such as this analysis aid in our understanding of where and why wetland loss is occurring so we can prioritize our conservation and restoration efforts.”
Commissioner Robert Klee of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CTDEEP) said “Tidal wetlands provide critical habitat for an impressive variety of vegetation and marine life as well as serving as an important buffer to protect properties and infrastructure from coastal storms. The work done to enhance and restore tidal wetlands in Connecticut has made a real contribution to improving the natural resources and environment of our Long Island Sound coastline. Analyses such as these will help us continue to work closely with our partners in pursuit of restoration projects and other management efforts that address conventional issues as well as the new challenges to our shore raised by climate change.”
“In 2015, the bi-state Long Island Sound Study partnership set a goal of restoring 515 acres of tidal wetlands along Long Island Sound by 2035,” said Mark Tedesco, Director of the EPA’s Long Island Sound Office. “This study helps put restoration objectives into the context of historic losses of wetlands.”
The report was based upon the best available sources of tidal wetland data from the 1880s, 1970s, and 2000s. Researchers did not definitively conclude why Connecticut wetland habitats have increased since the 1970s, but cited as possible factors efforts to restore habitats, higher elevation marshes that are more resilient to salt water intrusion from sea level rise or other causes, and proximity to river systems such as the Connecticut River that carry sediment downstream to help stabilize marshes. Despite the gain, the study cautioned that a survey of large salt marshes in Connecticut, conducted as part of the research, found a high amount of permanent open water on the marsh surface, an indication that Connecticut wetlands may also be stressed. In New York, a Long Island Tidal Wetlands Trends Analysis completed for NYSDEC in 2015 also identified a rapid loss of intertidal marsh habitats in Long Island Sound, possibly related to nutrient loading, sea level rise, changes in the amount of sediment, and recreational losses. It recommended further investigation to determine which causes contribute the most to wetland losses.
While the report largely identified a negative trend, it suggested that setting goals to protect a publicly desired level of wetland condition and function around the Sound, addressing site-specific threats, and securing the public’s support for large-scale restoration could help change the course of wetland loss in Long Island Sound.
The study, available at FWS’s northeast region website at http://www.fws.gov/northeast/science/sciencenews/wetlandslongislandsound.html, was conducted by Georgia Basso, a wildlife biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Kevin O’Brien, an environmental analyst for CTDEEP, Victoria O’Neill, a NYSDEC habitat restoration coordinator, and Melissa Albino Hegeman, a marine biologist at NYSDEC.
The Long Island Sound Study (LISS) is a cooperative effort sponsored by the EPA, CTDEEP, and NYSDEC, which involves researchers, regulators, user groups, and other concerned organizations and individuals working together to protect and improve the health of the Sound.