Salt marshes in RI vulnerable to environmental change

Salt marshes used to be considered swampland to be filled for shopping centers and parking lots.

Nowadays, they are considered prime natural resources -- and necessary.

But the Ocean State is losing salt marshes at a much faster rate than anywhere else, as marches are being swamped by rising tides.

“If we lose our salt marshes, we’re losing a really important natural asset that can't easily be replaced,” Janet Coit, the director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, said.

Marshes serve as barriers when storms hit the coast. Direct exposure to the ocean results in surges carrying sand inland.

They also protect the land behind them, said Coit.

“When a storm surge comes, they kind of capture the water and absorb it, so that it buffers the force of the waves for the development inland,” she said. “So, they’re sort of like sponges, and they hold the water.”

As arctic ice continues to melt, the sea level is rising -- six inches in Newport in the last 40 years.

But that rate is predicted to increase.

The ecosystem that supports the fishing industry could be threatened, as well.

“Our salt marshes are the nursery ground for our fisheries (and) they protect our shore lines,” Coit said. “They’re really important for habitat and the resilience of our coastal communities.”