Volunteers return marsh to natural, native state

Over the past seven months a large group of volunteers led by the Mystic Aquarium and Avalonia Land Conservancy have been restoring the salt marsh at Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve in Stonington Borough.

MaryEllen Mateleska, the aquarium’s director of education and conservation, said marsh grass and other native plants now grow on the 2.6 acres at the end of Wall Street and native wildlife has returned as well.

She said the site has additional environmental significance as it filters runoff from the borough, and historical importance as an 19th-century pottery factory was once located on the property.

She said it is also an example of how climate change can reshape a piece of land as the site was once home to fresh and salt water marshes but is now just a salt marsh after being damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Using a $45,316 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation – Long Island Sound Futures Fund, along with volunteers from schools and community organizations who donated 2,800 hours of labor, the project is slated for completion in December of 2016.

“We want this marsh to be a model of what other communities can do,” she said.

“Using a climate adaptive planting plan and engaging the community in a shared vision of coastal stewardship makes this project a model for how people can join us in our mission to protect our ocean planet,” she further explained in an aquarium press release.

The aquarium said that the project ties in with its “One Ocean, One Mission” strategic plan, that places conservation “at the forefront of its activities-locally, regionally and globally.”

Mateleska said the aquarium had previously worked closely with Avalonia, which owns the property, on horseshoe crab tagging.

“When they said they had a marsh where nothing was coming back and they wanted to get the community involved, it was an ideal situation for us. We could use our volunteers and staff and use it as learning laboratory,” she explained about how the aquarium got involved in the project.

In addition, she said the aquarium was already involved in salt marsh education with middle school students.

Students from the Stonington Community Center, Mitchell and Connecticut colleges, staff and volunteers from the aquarium and Avalonia all worked on the project.

Mateleska said that after the state Department of Environmental Protection removed the invasive phragmites from the site, stagnant pools of water formed and attracted mosquitoes. The DEEP then dug a trench to return salt water flow to the property but had no plans to add plants.

After the aquarium did a cleanup of the site in March, Mateleska said the group wanted to see if anything would grow back on its own but by June nothing had. So the group planted marsh grass in June and then added small bushes. There are plans to add more plants. All of the plantings are resistant to salt water.

“What has floored me about this site is how may people love this area. Every time I’m down there people thank us for being out there and offer help,” she said. “It really shows that this can be a community project that brings people together and creates more environmental stewards.”

Earlier this month an event was held in which seeds were gathered from the spartina marsh grass that was planted in June and is now growing on the site. High school students in the aquarium’s Youth Conservation Corps program will grow the seeds this winter and the plugs will be planted in the marsh next spring to continue the restoration.

A bird assessment has also shown that birds are returning to the property now that it has plants.

Mateleska said the aquarium wants to ensure that the marsh is set for success over the long term. She said the aquarium will continue to do cleanups of the site after the project is completed.

j.wojtas@theday.com

@joewojtas

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