The Wetlands of Delaware Are Crucial for the Local Ecosystem

Photographs by Maria Deforrest

Explore the iconic—and environmentally irreplaceable—wetlands of the First State, and learn how you can help protect them.

Spring is a magical time in the St. Jones Reserve, a salt marsh near Kitts Hummock. Ospreys cry out overhead, circling their lofty nesting posts. Herons perch, lithe and graceful, near the edges of the water, waiting for the glistening flash of fish scales. Turtles bask on algae-slick logs, their sunbaked shells winking up from between the long, beige grasses. Along the edges of the boardwalk, one can see tiny, firm shoots of pale green beginning to unfurl, stretching toward the sun.

For environmental scientist Alison Rogerson, these are all regular—and cherished—parts of her workday. Rogerson has worked at the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) for 15 years. A Maryland native and Delaware resident since sixth grade, Rogerson never thought she’d find a career here, but she soon realized everything she was passionate about was right under her nose: “I was like, ‘Son of a gun, I like birds and I like wetlands, and wouldn’t you know it? Delaware has both,’” she says.

Delaware’s wetlands might seem quiet on the surface, but if you look closer, you’ll see this fertile ecosystem serves many functions for all kinds of creatures.
Delaware’s wetlands might seem quiet on the surface, but if you look closer, you’ll see this fertile ecosystem serves many functions for all kinds of creatures.

Now, she’s focused on the task at hand. Silently, she leans over the boardwalk handrail and watches the sandy sediment below her intently. It’s riddled with tiny holes.

We’re just trying to get a better handle on what kind of wetlands we have, how healthy they are, how we can make them better…and educate people.

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“There! You see that?” She points to one of the openings, where a flash of movement has caught her eye. It’s a small, dust-colored crab, only visible for a second before it ducks inside its tunnel. “Oh, and he’s gone.”

Rogerson explains that this is a fiddler crab, an essential part of the wetlands ecosystem. Their little burrows provide a great source of oxygen for the salt marsh cordgrass. They’re also a food source for a variety of creatures that live in the wetlands, such as herons and raccoons. They feed on algae and decaying plants, working as nature’s cleanup service for dead plant matter.

The diamondback terrapin is one of many creatures that call the wetlands home. However, their population is dwindling due to habitat loss as well as crab traps. Crabbers are encouraged to check their traps once a day for turtles and use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) to allow the turtles to escape.
The diamondback terrapin is one of many creatures that call the wetlands home. However, their population is dwindling due to habitat loss as well as crab traps. Crabbers are encouraged to check their traps once a day for turtles and use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) to allow the turtles to escape.

Rogerson works in the division of Watershed Stewardship with the wetland monitoring assessment program. “It’s all science, research, education and outreach all about wetlands,” she says. “Freshwater, saltwater, any kind. We’re just trying to get a better handle on what kind of wetlands we have, how healthy they are, how we can make them better…and educate people. They make up almost a quarter of our state’s land area, which is impressive. It used to be closer to 50%, back in pre-Colonial times, but we’ve undone a lot of that.”

So what are wetlands, exactly? According to DNREC’s website, they’re areas of land with water touching it during at least some part of the year, hydrophytic plants (plants adapted to very wet conditions) and hydric soil (soil that has been or is soaked with water). They come in different varieties—for example, a salt marsh is a type of wetland.

Wetlands can be tidal (influenced by the tides) or nontidal. Usually, salt marshes are tidal, and freshwater marshes are nontidal, but that isn’t always the case. “I love wetlands because they do so many things for us, and I think they’re kind of underrated, historically,” Rogerson points out. Their sulfuric odor can sometimes make them less popular, but wetlands are incredibly important to the Delawarean ecosystem and offer many benefits.

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First, they’re a great habitat. Rogerson says two-thirds of commercially viable fish and shellfish, like the iconic blue crab, make the salt marshes their nursery ground. “When they’re babies and they’re vulnerable, they’re hiding out in tidal creeks that are small, until they get bigger,” she says. Creatures like muskrats, herons, osprey and marsh birds, diamondback terrapins (a type of turtle) and even sometimes river otters all populate the salt marshes.

According to Mark Biddle, DNREC’s environmental program manager, wetlands help protect us from storms by acting as a giant sponge, soaking up water and reducing flooding. This becomes increasingly important as climate change continues to increase storm intensity and frequency.
According to Mark Biddle, DNREC’s environmental program manager, wetlands help protect us from storms by acting as a giant sponge, soaking up water and reducing flooding. This becomes increasingly important as climate change continues to increase storm intensity and frequency.

Wetlands also filter pollutants out of our waterways. Salt marsh grasses and peat—a mixture of live roots, organic material and soil—filter out pesticides, heavy metals, excess nutrients and more. Their spongy quality also means they are great shock absorbers for waves when storms hit. In addition, they soak up lots of water and help with flooding, releasing the water gradually.

Marshes can also help to mitigate the worsening impact of climate change. They can help absorb the shock of storms that are increasing in intensity and frequency, and with absorbing water as the sea level rises. But wetlands are also endangered by climate change.

Mark Biddle

“In terms of salt marshes, we’re really concerned about sea level rise and development,” Rogerson says. “We do have an effective regulatory program for activities in tidal wetlands, but the pressure is enormous on development of the coast. Things have changed. … We’re seeing a ton of coastal erosion, and that’s due to higher water levels, increased storm intensity and coastal development.”

In addition, a lot of sediment from wetlands is washing into waterways and either being dredged and taken away or just not being replenished: “We’re losing ground—literally,” she explains. “And we’re a hot spot for sea-level rise, higher rates than along the rest of the coast and worldwide.”

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It’s clear that wetlands are important, but what can Delawareans do to help them? Plenty, Rogerson says. If you live along the water, you can work to control the invasive plants in your wetland area, especially the phragmites, those long, golden reeds with a fluffy tail of seeds at the end. These invasive plants choke out the native ones that are crucial to the health of the marsh. Don’t clip phragmites and take them home as “flower arrangements”—this spreads their seeds.

Homeowners can encourage native plants, such as salt marsh cordgrass and spartina, and work to manage water that runs off their property, because this water makes its way back to the wetlands. “People that live high up in the watershed have a hard time understanding that they’re connected to the ocean, but these things all flow together, so managing your litter and your trash and what runs off of your driveway out of your gutters helps,” she says.

You can also keep rain gardens and rain barrels. These take the rain from your gutters and channel it into a garden of native plants, which is great for pollinators and ensures your stormwater doesn’t have to be managed and treated. Using herbicides and pesticides on your lawn also harms the wetlands, as does excess fertilizer. The Delaware Livable Lawns website (delawarelivablelawns.org) can help with soil testing to gauge how much fertilizer you actually need.

In terms of salt marshes, we’re really concerned about sea level rise and development.

When it comes to protecting wildlife, it’s important for crabbers to check their traps every 24 hours and use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) to allow trapped turtles to escape from the crab traps and swim back up to the surface for air. Otherwise, they’ll drown. Diamondback terrapins, in particular, currently face a high rate of mortality from bycatch.

Mark Biddle, an environmental program manager for DNREC, discusses other ways people can help the wetlands as he explores Fork Branch Reserve. This is another kind of wetland, a nontidal freshwater one, and one of the oldest forests in Kent County, boasting some beech trees that go back 150 years. The glassy surface of the water surrounding the trees reflects the iridescent wings of insects as they hover over the water, and the lively trill of birdsong punctuates our conversation.

“The park system takes on volunteers for trail maintenance and to collect litter and that kind of thing,” Biddle says. He also points out that you can become an advocate for the wetlands, supporting environmental legislation and donating to environmentalist causes in Delaware: “There are a bunch of different ways to get involved.”

Alison Rogerson
Alison Rogerson, an environmental scientist at DNREC, says local landowners can help protect our wetlands by managing the water, litter and chemicals that run off of their lawns, planting native plants and uprooting invasives, and channeling rainwater into a rain garden.

A host of new creatures await us in this freshwater landscape: fat frogs crouched in the mud; slimy, patterned salamanders; a plethora of fish. Mammals like foxes, raccoons and possums watch from afar, along with plenty of insects and birds. Plants like skunk cabbages, rushes, sedges, highbush blueberries, American holly trees (the Delaware state tree), red maples, sweetgums, oaks, hickories and more all thrive here.

“One of the coolest things about this park is that you get a good idea of how the upland interacts with the lower wetland area,” Biddle notes. “So a lot of times, wildlife uses those edges to spend most of their lives.” He points to a fallen tree—more specifically, the wet depression left by its lifted root ball. “A lot of people are just like, ‘Oh, it’s just a puddle’…but it’s teeming with life.”

There’s a growing need for research on and preservation of the natural wetlands due to the threat of climate change, Biddle says. There’s also a concern about the impact of increased development. “We’ve lost over half of our historical wetlands from colonization,” he says. “And some of it has to happen. …You have to grow food…but there’s a balance to that human influence and the natural part of it. What I would like to see is just a better balance.”

Biddle warns that when it comes to protecting the wetlands, it’s not just about creating more man-made wetlands—it’s about preserving and aiding the natural wetlands that we have. If we get rid of natural wetlands and replace them with stormwater ponds, that will not provide the same ecosystem. “We’d have a net loss of functionality,” he explains.

But when it comes to the future of the wetlands, Biddle’s hopes are high. “It’s about protecting the functionality that we have, baseline, but then also improving that across the board. If we do that, I think we’d be in pretty good shape.”

Related: Do You Know Which Creatures Live at the Delaware Beaches?

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