NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 17, 2014

Group pushes for attention to phragmites threat

BY DYKE HENDRICKSON
STAFF WRITER

---- — NEWBURY — The phragmite is not your friend. In fact, it is a serious menace to the Great Marsh of Essex County, and local environmental officials are working to prevent further infestation.

The Great Marsh Revitalization Task Force, meeting this week, announced an acceleration of an effort to recognize the danger of phragmites and to make the public aware of the serious problem.

Among the actions that the group is taking is to apply for federal funds from the Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Program. The money, if received, will be used to attempt to curtail the advance of the weed. The search for financial support will be in conjunction with a funding request by the Merrimack River Beach Alliance and the National Wildlife Federation.

Also, the task force announced plans to inform local officials and residents that the health of the marsh in Essex County is threatened by the fast-growing coastal weed.

Phragmites are hardy coastal plants that can grow to 15 to 20 feet in height. Once rooted, they provide a dense wall of foliage that botanists say is threatening native forms of plant life. Scientists fear that fish and fowl that feed on traditional foliage could also be threatened if those species are choked out.

From Maine to New Jersey, phragmites are causing serious problems for many other North American hydrophyte wetland plants, authorities say.

Acid released by phragmites is degraded by ultraviolet light to produce a noxious compound, damaging susceptible plants and seedlings with two harmful toxins, according to studies.

Phragmites are so difficult to control that one of the most effective methods of eradicating the plant is to burn it over two or three seasons. The roots grow so deep and strong that one burn is not enough, experts say.

Local authorities have cut and sprayed phragmites, but burning was not mentioned at Wednesday’s meeting.

A documentary, “Danger in the Weeds,” has been produced and will soon be uploaded to YouTube, members of the task force said, as part of their public information campaign.

Funds for the informational 30-minute tape were acquired through an appeal on Kickstarter.com, an online fundraising site. The film was produced by Richard Hydren, a local marketing and public relations professional.

Peter Pippin, a task force leader and part of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission staff, reported that maps have been created to pinpoint areas of invasion. Cutting and spraying will take place this spring.

He said that resident and migratory birds depend on native plant diversity to flourish, and that the future of the 18,000-acre marsh depends on controlling this invasive species.

Authorities say the Great Marsh is the largest barrier island and saltmarsh complex in New England.