NEWBURY — The seemingly endless battle against phragmites continues in the Great Marsh, and this year it will be renewed with vigor.
Yesterday the state announced that it will spend nearly $39,000 to kill off large swaths of the tall, willowy phragmites reeds, which grow in abundance in several places in the vast salt marsh that separates the mainland from Plum Island. Phragmites are an invasive species of plants that choke out native vegetation. It has a dramatic impact on both the appearance of the marsh and the wildlife within it.
Two areas are being focused on — Massachusetts Audubon’s recently opened Rough Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary in Rowley and the so-called Upper Great Marsh, an area in Newbury that extends from just north of Pine Island to the Plum Island Turnpike.
The Upper Great Marsh area will get the bulk of the money, some $23,800. Peter Phippen, Coastal Resources coordinator for the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, said the money will be spent on killing off about 30 acres of phragmites and studying where it is growing and where it is spreading.
“We’re continuing the work we’ve been doing for seven or eight years now, trying to prevent the spread of phragmites,” he said. “We’re trying to keep it at bay with treatment while we search for a longterm solution.”
Were phragmites to overtake the marsh, the Great Marsh’s appearance and ecology would be completely altered. An example of this is visible on Route 1 in Salisbury, where tall phragmites reeds line the road and choke out the low saltmarsh grass that is native to the area. The long vistas across the marsh are gone, replaced by a solid wall of gangly reeds.
It also has an impact on wildlife. It changes the dynamics of fish breeding grounds and animal habitats and gives mosquitoes a place to survive. The latter problem causes the local mosquito spraying agency to cut down phragmites stands every fall.
Phippen said the phragmites work in the Upper Great Marsh will continue to look into a phenomenon that has occurred over the past 30 to 40 years. The level of salinity is low in portions of the area roughly between Pine Island and the Plum Island Turnpike, “and we’re not sure exactly why,” he said.
It’s a problem because phragmites thrives in a low salinity environment.
“But the rest of the marsh is pretty clean,” Phippen said. “That’s why we pay attention to this area more so than the rest of the marsh.”
Another initiative being pursued is a new technology being developed at the University of New Hampshire that will help to identify areas where phragmites is likely to grow. The handheld device measures electromagnetic induction. When the data is studied, it can show where the salinity levels favor the growth of phragmites. That information would be important in determining where to focus attention on combatting phragmites.
“It’s sort of like finding a sweet spot where phragmites likes to grow,” Phippen said. “Knowing it would allow us to target our limited spraying dollars.”
Phippen called it a groundbreaking technology that could be a major advance in the efforts to control the weeds. Funding is still being sought for it, he said.
Phippen’s organization, along with a coalition of nonprofits and government agencies called the Great Marsh Revitalization Task Force, applied for the grant and will manage the money, according to the state.