S.C. Sea Grant Consortium

News Story

Community Scientists Sprout New Salt Marsh Habitat

Oct 20, 2021

Volunteers are restoring key swatches of salt marsh—one oyster reef and patch of smooth cordgrass at a time.

A comprehensive three-year project will result in salt marsh ecosystem restoration at 13 sites within Charleston County. In November 2020, volunteers began to harvest smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) seeds from the marsh. Those seedlings were germinated in a greenhouse over the winter and then planted anew in spring 2021 at high priority restoration sites. So far, more than 200 volunteers planted nearly 90,000 seedlings at five locations on Edisto Island, Folly Island, West Ashley, and James Island.

A male volunteers stands in a salt marsh, collecting seeds into a bag.

This restoration effort is part of the “Community Science Salt Marsh Restoration and Monitoring Project” funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service. A three-year $560,226 grant was awarded to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) in partnership with the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium, Clemson University Cooperative Extension, and South Carolina Aquarium.

The salt marsh restoration is one component of the larger project to address the decline of the salt marsh ecosystem due to erosion, sea-level rise, and habitat loss. Intertidal oyster (Crassostrea virginica) reefs also are created by volunteers to bolster Spartina alterniflora for a more resilient habitat. The overall objective is twofold: to physically help reestablish areas of salt marsh and oyster reefs identified for restoration, and to foster community awareness of the vital salt marsh ecosystem through volunteer engagement. The resulting creation of new oyster reefs and salt marshes provides habitat that benefits multiple SCDNR-managed species, such as red drum, flounder, and shrimp.

Two volunteers work at a table planting seeds in small pots.

Spartina alterniflora, because of its vast rhizome system, helps to stabilize and even facilitate the creation of new salt marsh habitat,” said Elizabeth Vernon (E.V.) Bell, marine education specialist with the Consortium. Volunteers become trained community scientists in data collection methods, including use of the Anecdata smartphone app. Through the app, volunteers can record, view, and access salt marsh restoration data, such as the number of Spartina seeds collected or number of plants transplanted. Long-term monitoring of the restoration sites also is conducted by community scientists.

Marsh grass seedlings in the greenhouse.

“We’ve had an excellent showing of volunteers who came out to help,” said Amanda Namsinh, coastal outreach intern at the Consortium. “It’s been a joy to work with folks with all sorts of backgrounds, from little to no experience volunteering for environmental projects, and well-seasoned folks who have volunteered with S.C. Sea Grant and SCDNR for many years.”

Volunteers bend over a planting site in the salt marsh.

Photo courtesy of Mike Ledford, College of Charleston.

The project expands upon the Consortium’s popular From Seeds to Shoreline® program model, which engages K-12 students and teachers in cultivating and transplanting Spartina alterniflora, to include adult volunteers from local Charleston-area communities.

For more information, please visit the project webpage. To learn more about the salt marsh ecosystem, take the online self-paced course developed by the Consortium, SCDNR, and Clemson Extension.

Newly planted marsh grass seedlings.

Photo courtesy of Mike Ledford, College of Charleston.