The Fate of Coastal Wetlands – A Conversation with Dr. Dennis Albert

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Kate Wellons, Oregon State University

In this video, Nature Change catches up with Dr. Dennis Albert and Kate Wellons doing coastal wetland research at Cecil Bay near Wilderness State Park. One of the foremost experts on Great Lakes coastal wetlands, Denny worked with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory for almost 20 years before joining the research faculty at Oregon State University.

Standing on the edge of this beautiful wetland, Denny pointed out that wetlands are particularly productive ecosystems that serve as key habitat for a wide range of fish, insects, birds, amphibians and mammals. Coastal wetlands are particularly important to many of Lake Michigan’s fisheries for spawning and shelter, as well as nurseries for the youngest fish (e.g., fry and fingerlings).

People benefit from wetlands too. For example, coastal wetlands provide a dense mat of roots and stems that absorb wave energy, reducing shoreline erosion and trapping sediments.

“The water levels in the Great Lakes fluctuate,” Denny said. “We see almost six feet of water level fluctuation. It’s part of the normal cycle. And the plants in coastal wetlands adjust to that.”

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Dr. Dennis A. Albert, Oregon State University

However, the arrival of invasive plant species like fragmites and purple loosestrife has changed the pattern established over millennia. When the water levels dropped this last time in 1999 and later, the open shoreline was rapidly colonized by fragmites in many places, like the Saginaw Bay. Very large areas of coastline were taken over by dense growths of this 10 to 12 foot high invasive plant, disrupting many of the normal ecological benefits of coastal wetlands.

Denny suggest that climate change is adding to these threats. “If we see, as part of climate change a dropping of Great Lakes water levels, that probably means we’re going to have a more and more severe problem of invasives taking over coastal wetlands.”

Thankfully, most of the coastal wetlands of northwest lower Michigan have had only limited outbreaks of invasive species which have, for the most part, been treated and stopped. Further, since there is less nutrient enrichment of the waters of our region, there is less to support the rapid growth of invasives.

“We definitely need to be vigilant” in northwest lower Michigan, according to Denny. “We still have the option to catch new small pockets and remove it before it covers a ¼ or ½ mile of shoreline.”

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