volunteers plant marsh grasses at the donor marsh

Donor Marsh at Duke Energy

Grass growing from an oyster bar off the coast of Cedar Key, Florida. UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones.The problem

Habitat loss is a huge problem along the Gulf on Mexico coast. Many groups are attempting to address habitat loss via restoration. Restored habitats include marshes, oyster and coral reefs, and dunes. However, restoration requires access to the plants and animals that form the bases of these habitats. Unfortunately, this usually means organisms are either taken from natural areas or grown in nursery settings and acquired at a significant cost. Both of these approaches are undesirable because of potential impacts to wild places or added cost.  As living shorelines gain popularity, there will be increasing demand for plant material.

Volunteers plant marsh plantsEnter the donor marsh

A donor marsh is an artificial wetland maintained for the purpose of supplying plants to habitat restoration projects. A donor marsh is a great way to lessen pressure on natural marshes. It has the added benefit of reducing the cost of plant material for marsh restoration. Donor marshes can also have side benefits such as helping treat effluent from aquaculture or greenhouse facilities or capturing and storing carbon.

In March and April 2018, we worked with a group of 21 volunteers, 3 UF faculty, and 3 Duke staff to establish a donor marsh at  the Duke Energy Mariculture Center in Crystal River. During two events, volunteers planted ~2,650 shoots of Spartina alterniflora (smooth cord grass) and ~1,700 shoots of S. patens (salt meadow cord grass) in a pond that was previously used to raise fish. These plants will grow and fill in over time, creating new plants that can be transplanted to local shorelines. The hope is that the donor marsh will remove some of the barriers to marsh habitat restoration by making plant material cheaper and more readily available. Much of the starter plant material was donated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Stock Enhancement Research Facility in Port Manatee, FL.

Going forward, UF faculty, interns, and graduate students will be monitoring the marsh’s progress. Staff at the Duke Energy Mariculture Center will maintain the marsh by flooding it with salt water periodically. The donor marsh project would not be possible without the help of Duke Energy staff and the dedication of the pond facilities to the project. Soon, marsh plants reared in this facility could be coming to a shoreline near you!

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