, Newburyport, MA

January 30, 2014

Our view: Phragmites warnings should be heeded

Newburyport Daily News

---- — If there is a singular physical characteristic that makes this region unique, it is the Great Marsh.

There is nothing else like it in the region; indeed, its closest rival can be found far to the south of here. There is no other place along the 570-mile New England coastline where one can find a salt marsh as large and diverse as what we have along our local coast.

Though it appears at casual glance as a barren flatland of marshy ground crisscrossed by serpentine rivers and creeks, it is our most important incubator of wildlife. It is the spawning ground for a wide variety of marine animals, and from that springs a complex food chain. Its loss would be catastrophic to our local ecology. Like Chesapeake Bay in the Mid-Atlantic states, the Great Marsh is a hub of vitality for the natural world.

The marsh’s vastness masks the warning signs of trouble. One of those signs has been well documented of late by a small team of locals — Gregg Moore, Geoff Walker, Peter Phippen and Richard Hydren. Their film, “Danger in the Reeds,” explores the creeping growth of invasive phragmites in the Great Marsh and the significant damage this invasive plant is doing.

The short documentary is playing to rave reviews among locals who have viewed it. The film can be seen online, via producer Hydren’s website. It’s well worth viewing by those who appreciate the marsh, and perhaps more importantly, it will spur people to action.

Phragmites are tall and willowy reeds, growing to nearly 20 feet in height. They are not natural to this region; they are believed to have been inadvertently brought here aboard European ships. A thin but strong central reed towers over the plant, topped by a fluffy clump of seed pods. They grow in thick clumps, overshadowing the marsh’s grasses. They change the dynamics of the marsh by destroying the natural grasslands and thus destroying the habitat that spawns marine life.

Currently, there are several large stands of phragmites, most notably along Route 1 in Salisbury, where they have grown so tall and so thick they completely hide the long views across the marshes. For those who are used to looking across the miles and miles of open salt marsh vistas, the stands along Route 1 in Salisbury are a stark display of what the future holds.

There have been efforts to control phragmites in the Great Marsh, but it is a difficult battle. They are notoriously difficult to kill off. In fact, cutting them down makes them come back even thicker and stronger. More resources and better efforts are needed to push them back.

The purpose of the video is to draw attention to the problem and to help in an effort to win a $3 million grant to eradicate phragmites from the Great Marsh. This is a worthwhile effort, one that should be tackled now. A decade from now, when the phragmites stands have doubled or tripled in size, we will wish that we had spent the money when the problem was more manageable.

Kudos to Moore, Walker, Phippen, Hydren and the many people who contributed money to fund the film. It succinctly and expertly explains the problem and lays out a path to solve it. We should heed the film’s warnings and advice.