Does managed coastal realignment create saltmarshes with ‘equivalent biological characteristics’ to natural reference sites?
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- Coastal saltmarshes provide distinctive biodiversity and important ecosystem services, including coastal defence, supporting fisheries and nutrient cycling. However, c. 50% of the world's coastal marshes are degraded or have been lost, with losses continuing. In both Europe and North America, there is a legal requirement to create habitats to substitute for losses. How well do created habitats replicate natural salt marshes?
- We compared plant communities and environmental characteristics of 18 deliberately realigned (managed realignment, MR - between 1 and 14 years old), 17 accidentally realigned (AR, 25–131 years old) sites with those on 34 natural reference saltmarshes in the UK.
- Halophytic species colonized individual realignment sites rapidly, attaining species richness similar to nearby reference marshes after 1 year. Nevertheless, the community composition of MR sites was significantly different from reference sites, with early-successional species remaining dominant, even on the high marsh.
- The dominance of pioneer species on the low and mid-marsh may be because, at the same elevation, sediments were less oxygenated than on reference sites. Sediments were well oxygenated on the high marsh, but were often drier than on natural marshes.
- Overall community composition of AR marshes was not significantly different to reference marshes, but the characteristic perennials Limonium vulgare, Triglochin maritima, Plantago maritima and Armeria maritima remained relatively rare. In contrast, the shrub Atriplex portulacoides was more abundant, and its growth form may inhibit or delay colonization by other species.
- Synthesis and applications. Marshes created by managed realignment do not satisfy the requirements of the EU Habitats Directive. Adherence to the Directive might be improved by additional management interventions, such as manipulation of topographic heterogeneity or planting of mid- and upper-marsh species. However, given the inherent variation in natural saltmarshes and projected environmental change, policies that require exact equivalence at individual sites may be unachievable. More realistic goals might require minimum levels of a range of ecosystem functions on a broader scale, across catchments or regions.