Research Themes

wells national estuarine research reserve

The Wells Reserve research program provides a scientific foundation for community efforts to protect coastal watersheds.

Salt Marsh Habitats and Communities

Factors that control the dynamics and vigor of salt marsh plant communities and marsh peat formation determine the ability of a salt marsh to persist in the face of sea level rise. Through a combination of experimental manipulations and long term monitoring, we are producing data to answer questions concerning the sustainability of natural and restoring salt marsh habitats in this region.

These studies are looking at nutrient-plant relations, plant community responses to physical and hydrologic disturbance, and the relative contribution of short-term natural events (such as storms) and human activities (such as dredging and tidal restriction) on patterns of sediment accretion and erosion.

The Wells Reserve’s marshes and beaches are among the best-studied sites nationally with regard to long-term accretion and erosion (over thousands of years). The barrier beaches that protect these marshes have also been well studied, especially with respect to alterations due to human activity and sea level rise.

Habitat Value for Fish, Shellfish, and Birds

The Wells Reserve combines long-term monitoring with periodic surveys and short-term experiments to identify species and measure trends and changes in populations of fish, crustaceans, clams, and birds.

We have many years of data on upland birds, wading birds, and shorebirds for assessing population status. Our wading bird data are used as a gross indicator of salt marsh health. Our periodic larval, juvenile, and adult fish surveys have produced the best available data for fish utilization of salt marsh estuaries and coastal watersheds in the Gulf of Maine.

We periodically conduct surveys and field experiments to look at the survival and growth of hatchery seed, juvenile, and adult softshell clams, as well as their favored habitat characteristics and predation by the invasive green crab.

Salt Marsh Degradation and Restoration

Since 1991, the Wells Reserve has been studying the impact of tidal restrictions on salt marsh functions and values, and the response of salt marshes to tidal restoration.

Salt marsh ecosystems in the Gulf of Maine sustained themselves in the face of sea-level rise and other natural disturbances for nearly 5,000 years. Since colonial times large areas of salt marsh have been lost through diking, draining, and filling.

Today, the remaining marshland is fairly well protected from outright destruction, but during the past 100 years, and especially since the 1950s, salt marshes have been divided into fragments by roads, causeways, culverts, and tide gates. Tidal flow to most of these fragments is severely restricted, leading to chronic habitat degradation and greatly reduced access for fish and other marine species.

Adjusting a fyke net in a salt marsh channel.

Migratory Fish

Wells Reserve scientists survey fish populations in salt marsh habitats, with a special interest in restoring runs of migratory species such as smelt, alewife, and eel.

Field workers collecting fish data. Measuring and recording fish data. Windowpane flounder are among the species sometimes caught during salt marsh fish surveys.