The Many Values of the Marsh

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Salt marsh grasslands, tidal creeks, and estuaries make up one of the richest habitats on earth. The Great Marsh, the largest salt marsh in New England, contains an astonishing diversity of plant and animals.

Coastal wetlands are transition zones between the land and sea. These coastal areas have unique hydrologic characteristics resulting from the rise and fall of water. Many species of fish, insects, shellfish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals make their home in the Great Marsh. Some rare bird species include: American bittern, northern harrier (background image), peregrine falcon, short-eared owl, and common and least terns.

Coastal wetlands function to preserve water quality and supply, filter stormwater pollutants, prevent storm damage, and provide habitat for wildlife and fisheries. For example, 95 percent of commercially harvested fish and shellfish species depend on wetlands for at least part of their life cycle.

Diverse partnerships have been formed since the early 1990s to protect and conserve the Great Marsh under the title of the Great Marsh Initiative. The Initiative focuses on salt marsh restoration; land protection; water quality improvement, and anadromous fish conservation, education, and monitoring.

Click HERE for links to organizations working to protect the environment of the Great Marsh

Vast portions of the Great Marsh are designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), specifically called the Parker River/Essex Bay ACEC

The Great Marsh is famous for shellfish and recreational activities that benefit the local economy. The marsh also buffers against costly flood and storm damage and filters coastal pollutants.

The soft-shell clam fishery in the Parker River-Plum Island Sound estuary is by far the most valuable commercial fishery. In 1996 the commercial value of the soft-shell clam harvest in Ipswich, Rowley, and Newbury was over one million dollars. The financial impact of the clam can be felt along many economic lines; from the harvesters to the distributors, from the processors to the restaurant owners.

Increasingly, tourism and recreation are seen as major sources of money for the region. For example, a study conducted by the University of New Hampshire showed that local expenditures generated by the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge amount to approximately six million dollars annually (Gilbert, Laura, J. Halstead, E. Jansen, and R. Robertson. 1994. Economic and Social Impacts of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and its Piper Plover Management Program. New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station, University of New Hampshire. Research Report).

Click HERE for links to organizations support the economic values of the Great Marsh

kayakersThe network of waterways, beaches, parks, and wildlife refuges in the Great Marsh make it an outstanding destination to enjoy boating, fishing, bird watching, hiking, and beach activities throughout the cities and towns of Gloucester, Essex, Ipswich, Rowley, Newbury, Newburyport, and Salisbury. Some prime destinations include: Cox Reservation (Essex), Wingaersheek Beach (Gloucester), Crane Beach (Ipswich), Old Town Hill (Newbury), Parker River National Wildlife Refuge (Ipswich, Newburyport, Newbury, and Rowley), Joppa Flats Education Center and Wildlife Sanctuary (Newburyport) and Salisbury Beach State Reservation (Salisbury).

Whatever you do, regardless of the season, the Great Marsh and surrounding areas will impress you with their beauty, history, diverse wildlife and more. Take an opportunity to get to know this treasure in your backyard.

By Paddle

The network of tidal creeks and rivers, Plum Island Sound, and Essex Bay provide countless peaceful and serene places to explore by kayak or canoe. There are a number of launch sites where you can start your exploration of the Great Marsh. These include:

Pavillion Beach in Ipswich, located where Plum Island Sound opens into Ipswich Bay. From here you can explore Plum Island, several tidal rivers and Crane Beach on Castle Neck. It is located at the causeway between Great Neck and Little Neck, on Little Neck Road; access for non-motorized craft is marked.
Another pubic access point in Ipswich is at the Town Wharf on East Street. Parking is available for a fee.
The Jones River in Gloucester can be accessed via Long Wharf in Gloucester on Atlantic Street.

The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport provides non-motorized boat access to Plum Island Sound and is available from the Refuge at the boat ramp opposite parking lot 1. Boat ramp use is available year-round during Refuge hours of operation, sunrise to sunset.

With advance arrangements, canoes and kayaks may be launched at high tide from Essex County Greenbelt Association's Cox Reservation in Essex.

Essex River Basin Adventures provides a variety of guided sea kayak tours for all abilities.

Local kayaking clubs such as the North Shore Paddlers Network offer paddling trips, workshops and more.

If you would prefer a comfortable, narrated tour on a larger vessel, several companies in the area offer cruises including:

Agawam Boat Charters
Essex River Cruises

Walking, Hiking and Biking

The Great Marsh region has numerous areas to walk, hike and bike. These range from in-town walks to scenic trails through conservation lands. For more information visit the following web sites:

Ipswich Bay Circuit Trail
Friends of Our Trails
Essex County Trails Association
Parker River Clean Water Association

Visit Massachusetts Audubon, Essex County Greenbelt, and the Trustees of Reservations to learn about the many conservation areas and natural open spaces you can visit. These organizations also offer guided programs that explore the varied habitats, plants and animals in the Great Marsh.

Life is a Beach

Or so the saying goes...but you haven't lived until you've visited Crane Beach in Ipswich. Managed by The Trustees of Reservations, Crane Beach offers miles of white sand, perfect for walking, swimming, beachcombing and, during the summer months, observing Piping Plovers and Least Terns. For more information on Crane Beach, visit The Trustees of Reservations website.

The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island in Newburyport not only offers fantastic birding, but contains some of the most pristine beaches in New England. However, some of these beaches are closed for part of the year during Piper Plover nesting season so be sure to check with the Refuge before heading out to Plum Island.

Salisbury Beach State Reservation offers 3.8 miles of ocean beach as well as opportunities for fishing and boating. Facilities include a 481-site campground, bathhouses, a playground and pavilion area making it a great place to take the kids.

Click HERE for links to organizations involved in recreational opportunities within the Great Marsh.

staddelsFrom the earliest use of the area by Native Americans, the Great Marsh has been an important part of daily life on the North Shore. Salt marsh haying, farming, fishing, shipbuilding, and the arts continue to link our past to the present.

The area around Essex Bay was colonized in 1634 by fisherman, farmers, and their families. The region was once famous for ship and dory building, which peaked in the late 1800s. Most of the shipbuilding was in support of the Gloucester fishing industry. The Essex Shipbuilding Museum and Lowell's Boat Shop tell the story of the Great Marsh's great boatbuilding tradition.

Prior to colonization by Europeans, the Great Marsh area was said to be controlled by Masconomo. According to The History of Byfield by John Louis Ewell, published in 1904, "When the white man came, all the territory from the Merrimack south as far as the North River of Salem and inland as far as Andover was subject to Masconomo, who (Governor) Winthrop terms "the Sagamore of Agawam ..." Today, Masconomo's memorial site is found atop Sagamore Hill in Hamilton.

Salt marshes were a tremendous asset to early colonialists and settlers. Salt marsh hay was used for insulation, roofing, and livestock feed and bedding. Salt marsh haying declined in the 1930s as farms switched primarily to upland hay. Today, salt marsh hay is almost exclusively used as mulch.

Click HERE for links to organizations working to protect the cultural and historical values of the Great Marsh