Quantifying vegetation and nekton response to tidal restoration of a New England salt marsh

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Tidal flow to salt marshes throughout the northeastern United States is often restricted by roads, dikes, impoundments, and inadequately sized culverts or bridge openings, resulting in altered ecological structure and function. In this study we evaluated the response of vegetation and nekton (fishes and decapod crustaceans) to restoration of full tidal flow to a portion of the Sachuest Point salt marsh, Middletown, Rhode Island. A before, after, control, impact study design was used, including evaluations of the tide-restricted marsh, the same marsh after reintroduction of tidal flow (i.e., tide-restored marsh), and an unrestricted control marsh. Before tidal restoration vegetation of the 3.7-ha tide-restricted marsh was dominated by Phragmites australis and was significantly different from the adjacent 6.3-ha Spartina-dominated unrestricted control marsh (analysis of similarities randomization test, p < 0.001). After one growing season vegetation of the tide-restored marsh had changed from its pre-restoration condition (analysis of similarities randomization test, p < 0.005). Although not similar to the unrestricted control marsh, Spartina patens and S. alterniflora abundance increased and abundance and height of Phragmites significantly declined, suggesting a convergence toward typical New England salt marsh vegetation. Before restoration shallow water habitat (creeks and pools) of the unrestricted control marsh supported a greater density of nekton compared with the tide-restricted marsh (analysis of variance, p < 0.001), but after one season of restored tidal flow nekton density was equivalent. A similar trend was documented for nekton species richness. Nekton density and species richness from marsh surface samples were similar between the tide-restored marsh and unrestricted control marsh. Fundulus heteroclitus and Palaemonetes pugio were the numerically dominant fish and decapod species in all sampled habitats. This study provides an example of a quantitative approach for assessing the response of vegetation and nekton to tidal restoration.

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Restoration Ecology