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Merrimack Valley

March 6, 2013

Fight against saltmarsh weeds gets a boost

NEWBURY — The seemingly endless battle against phragmites continues in the Great Marsh, and this year it will be renewed with vigor.

Yesterday the state announced that it will spend nearly $39,000 to kill off large swaths of the tall, willowy phragmites reeds, which grow in abundance in several places in the vast salt marsh that separates the mainland from Plum Island. Phragmites are an invasive species of plants that choke out native vegetation. It has a dramatic impact on both the appearance of the marsh and the wildlife within it.

Two areas are being focused on — Massachusetts Audubon’s recently opened Rough Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary in Rowley and the so-called Upper Great Marsh, an area in Newbury that extends from just north of Pine Island to the Plum Island Turnpike.

The Upper Great Marsh area will get the bulk of the money, some $23,800. Peter Phippen, Coastal Resources coordinator for the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, said the money will be spent on killing off about 30 acres of phragmites and studying where it is growing and where it is spreading.

“We’re continuing the work we’ve been doing for seven or eight years now, trying to prevent the spread of phragmites,” he said. “We’re trying to keep it at bay with treatment while we search for a long-term solution.”

Were phragmites to overtake the marsh, the Great Marsh’s appearance and ecology would be completely altered. An example of this is visible on Route 1 in Salisbury, where tall phragmites reeds line the road and choke out the low salt marsh grass that is native to the area. The long vistas across the marsh are gone, replaced by a solid wall of gangly reeds.

It also has an impact on wildlife. It changes the dynamics of fish breeding grounds and animal habitats and gives mosquitoes a place to survive. The latter problem causes the local mosquito spraying agency to cut down phragmites stands every fall.

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