URI student’s salt marsh research earns her trip to national conference

URI student’s salt marsh research
earns her trip to national conference

KINGSTON, R.I. — December 26, 2001 — “Ditch plugging” doesn’t sound like an exciting way to spend a summer vacation. But for University of Rhode Island senior Susan Wilson, it earned her accolades and a free trip to a national conference last month to discuss her research.

A resident of Warwick, Wilson spent the summer of 2000 shuttling between Rhode Island and three salt marshes along the coast of Maine to assess the effectiveness of using ditch plugging as a technique for restoring the health of the marshes.

“Back in the 1930s ditches were dug in salt marshes to drain the water off the marshes and eliminate mosquito breeding pools,” explained Wilson. But the ditches also reduced the diversity of fish, birds and other wildlife that use the marshes. “So we’re plugging the ditches and monitoring the effects, trying to create more natural conditions on the marshes.
“By bringing back pools, more fish and birds will use the marshes, creating a more diverse species composition. My job was to monitor the marshes to see if that was really happening and how.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plugged the ditches using environmentally sensitive equipment, which caused the water level in the marshes to rise. Several times each week, Wilson and URI graduate student Sue Adamowicz left home at 5:30 a.m. and drove to Maine, where they spent 8-9 hours at marshes in Ogunquit, Biddeford and Wells before driving back to Rhode Island. At each marsh they surveyed the fish populations and assessed the health of the vegetation.

Unfortunately, the results of Wilson’s research are inconclusive.

“One significant result of the plugging is that two of the major salt marsh grasses, Spartina alterniflora and Spartina patens, have declined,” she said. “I think that’s because those plants need aeration in their roots, and by increasing the water on the marsh they’re not getting that aeration. So they are effectively drowning. But we don’t know if that’s a permanent condition and we don’t yet know whether their decline is a good thing or bad for the overall marsh ecosystem.”

Despite her inconclusive results, the members of the Estuarine Research Federation thought her research merited one of 16 travel awards, which provided her with an all-expense-paid trip to the group’s November conference in Florida.

“Ditch plugging is a relatively experimental technique. Because it’s innovative and new, the conference people thought it was worth hearing about,” Wilson said.

Funding for her research was provided by the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique program designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its sixth year, the Coastal Fellows Program teams students with faculty, research staff and graduate students to help them gain skills that will ensure their future success.

Upon completion of her undergraduate studies at URI in May, Wilson intends to pursue graduate school in the URI/Roger Williams University joint program in marine affairs and law. After three years she’ll have earned both a master’s degree in marine affairs from URI and a law degree from Roger Williams.

“I had a lot of fun doing field work, but my interest is more in the policy end of environmental protection. I want to get into governmental policy, and my biology background will bring a new perspective to that field.”

For Information: Todd McLeish 401-874-7892