Salt Marsh and Fringing Oyster Reef Transgression in a Shallow Temperate Estuary: Implications for Restoration, Conservation and Blue Carbon

TitleSalt Marsh and Fringing Oyster Reef Transgression in a Shallow Temperate Estuary: Implications for Restoration, Conservation and Blue Carbon
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsRidge, JT, Rodriguez, AB, F. Fodrie, J
JournalEstuaries and Coasts
Pagination1013 - 1027
Date PublishedJan-07-2017

The importance of intertidal estuarine habitats, like salt marsh and oyster reef, has been well established, as has their ubiquitous loss along our coasts with resultant forfeiture of the ecosystem services they provide. Furthering our understanding of how these habitats are evolving in the face of anthropogenic and climate driven changes will help improve management strategies. Previous work has shown that the growth and productivity of both oyster reefs and salt marshes are strongly linked to elevation in the intertidal zone (duration of aerial exposure). We build on that research by examining the growth of marsh-fringing oyster reefs at yearly to decadal time scales and examine movement of the boundary between oyster reef and salt marsh at decadal to centennial time scales. We show that the growth of marsh-fringing reefs is strongly associated to the duration of aerial exposure, with little growth occurring below mean low water and above mean sea level. Marsh-shoreline movement, in the presence or absence of fringing oyster reefs, was reconstructed using transects of sediment cores. Carbonaceous marsh sediments sampled below the modern fringing oyster reefs indicate that marsh shorelines within Back Sound, North Carolina are predominantly in a state of transgression (landward retreat), and modern oyster-reef locations were previously occupied by salt marsh within the past two centuries. Cores fronting transgressive marsh shorelines absent fringing reefs sampled thinner and less extensive carbonaceous marsh sediment than at sites with fringing reefs. This indicates that fringing reefs are preserving carbonaceous marsh sediment from total erosion as they transgress and colonize the exposed marsh shoreline making marsh sediments more resistant to erosion. The amount of marsh sediment preservation underneath the reef scales with the reef’s relief, as reefs with the greatest relief were level with the marsh platform, preserving a maximum amount of carbonaceous sediments during transgression by buffering the marsh from erosional processes. Thus, fringing oyster reefs not only have the capacity to shelter shorelines but, if located at the ideal tidal elevation, they also keep up with accelerating sea-level rise and cap carbonaceous sediments, protecting them from erosion, as reefs develop along the marsh.