Effects of Docks on Salt Marsh Vegetation: an Evaluation of Ecological Impacts and the Efficacy of Current Design Standards
Private docks are common in estuaries worldwide. Docks in Massachusetts (northeast USA) cumulatively overlie ~ 6 ha of salt marsh. Although regulations are designed to minimize dock impacts to salt marsh vegetation, few data exist to support the efficacy of these policies. To quantify impacts associated with different dock designs, we compared vegetation characteristics and light levels under docks with different heights, widths, orientations, decking types and spacing, pile spacing, and ages relative to adjacent control areas across the Massachusetts coastline (n = 212). We then evaluated proportional changes in stem density and biomass of the dominant vegetation (Spartina alterniflora and Spartina patens) in relation to dock and environmental (marsh zone and nitrogen loading) characteristics. Relative to adjacent, undeveloped habitat, Spartina spp. under docks had ~ 40% stem density, 60% stem biomass, greater stem height and nitrogen content, and a higher proportion of S. alterniflora. Light availability was greater under taller docks and docks set at a north-south orientation but did not differ between decking types. Dock height best predicted vegetation loss, but orientation, pile spacing, decking type, age, and marsh zone also affected marsh production. We combined our proportional biomass and stem elemental composition estimates to calculate a statewide annual loss of ~ 2200 kg dry weight of Spartina biomass (367 kg per ha of dock coverage). Managers can reduce impacts through design modifications that maximize dock height (> 150 cm) and pile spacing while maintaining a north-south orientation, but dock proliferation must also be addressed to limit cumulative impacts.
KeywordsAboveground biomass Cumulative impacts Light attenuation Shading Spartina Stem density
We would like to thank Holly Williams, Alina Arnheim, Drew Collins, David Behringer, Christian Petitpas, Tay Evans, Katelyn Ostrikis, Jillian Carr, and Wesley Dukes for their assistance with field sampling. Vincent Manfredi provided equipment for grass measurements. Tara Rajaniemi (University of Massachusetts—Dartmouth) provided lab facilities for sample preparation. Brad Hubeny and the staff at the Salem State Viking Environmental Stable Isotope Lab performed isotope and elemental analyses.
This work was funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Bays National Estuary Program (MassBays).
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