By Carl Zimmer
Mark D. Bertness, an ecologist at Brown University, began studying the salt marshes of New England in 1981. Twenty-six years later, in 2007, he started to watch them die. In one marsh after another, lush stretches of cordgrass disappeared, replaced by bare ground. The die-offs were wiping out salt marshes in just a few years.
“It’s unbelievable how quickly it’s moved in,” Dr. Bertness said.
Scientists have been witnessing a similar transformation in a number of plant species along coastlines in the United States and in other countries. And in many cases, it’s been hard to pinpoint the cause of the die-off, with fungal outbreaks, pollution, choking sediments stirred up by boats, and rising sea levels proposed as killers.
There is much at stake in the hunt for the culprit, because salt marshes are hugely important. They shield coasts from flooding, pull pollutants from water and are nurseries for many fish species.
In the journal Ecology Letters, Dr. Bertness and his colleagues have nowpublished an experiment that may help solve the mystery. The evidence, they say, points to recreational fishing and crabbing. A fisherman idly dangling a line off a dock may not appear to be an agent of ecological collapse. But fishing removes the top predators from salt marshes, and the effects may be devastating.
Once New England salt marshes started dying off, Dr. Bertness and his colleagues embarked on a broad survey. Quickly they noticed a difference between healthy marshes and sick ones. The dying marshes tended to be near docks, marinas or buoys where boats could anchor, or where there were other signs of fishing.
“It wasn’t a brilliant thing we thought of sitting around the lab,” Dr. Bertness said. “By the time we got to 10 marshes, we realized there was this huge disparity.”
Dr. Bertness and his colleagues wondered how fishing and crabbing were affecting the food webs of the salt marshes. If people pull out striped bass and blue crabs and other predators from a salt marsh, the animals’ prey species — including those that feed on plants, like marsh crabs — are left to thrive. A growing population of marsh crabs might wipe out the cordgrass in a marsh. Without the roots of the cordgrass to anchor the soil, the marsh would erode, making it harder for new plants to grow.
To test this idea, Dr. Bertness and his colleagues surveyed salt marshes in Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, comparing marshes that were healthy with ones that were almost entirely dead. The scientists found that in dying marshes, the plants had more signs of being fed on by crabs. And when they looked for other proposed causes of marsh die-off, such as pollution, they didn’t find a correlation. They published their results in March in the journal PLOS One.
Next, the scientists took a step beyond simply observing the die-offs: They tried to cause them. If the predator hypothesis was right, then creating a predator-free salt marsh habitat should lead to the disappearance of cordgrass.
In May 2013, the scientists installed cages in a healthy salt marsh on Cape Cod. Each cage was three feet on a side, with mesh walls and an open bottom. Marsh crabs could feed on the cordgrass inside the cages by burrowing up through the mud, and the wire mesh walls protected them from predators like fish and blue crabs.
The experiment quickly yielded results. In a matter of weeks, the cages were crowded with marsh crabs, and much of the cordgrass inside the cages was dying off. “We were planning on it being a two- or three-year experiment,” Dr. Bertness said. “But by the beginning of July, I thought, ‘My God, this is really going fast.’”
William J. Ripple, an ecologist at Oregon State University who was not involved in the research, said, “This is an important new scientific discovery for salt-marsh systems, and more generally for ecology.” Scientists like Dr. Ripple have argued that predators are important to the ecological health of other ecosystems. But it’s been difficult to test the hypothesis directly the way Dr. Bertness has.
Merryl Alber of the University of Georgia agreed that the experiment showed that removing predators could decrease salt marsh grass. But she was reluctant to draw big lessons from the study. “It is still a leap to connect dieback to recreational overfishing,” she said.
Wade Elmer, a plant pathologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, thinks that the full story of the salt marshes’ decline is more complex than just fishing. Dr. Elmer has identified a new species of fungus that attacks cordgrass in New England salt marshes. He has suggested that the fungus may weaken the plants in a way that prevents them from making chemical defenses to ward off the marsh crabs.
“I think we all have our pet theories that explain what we see in our backyard,” said Dr. Elmer, “but these theories often fail as soon as we look elsewhere.”
Dr. Bertness doesn’t rule out the possibility that other factors are at play in the die-off of marshes. But he argues that fishing is having an enormous impact.
“The implications of these findings for the conservation of salt marshes are huge,” he said. “We need to maintain healthy predator populations.”