Healthy Ecosystems

UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant are committed to helping Georgians support and understand our environment.

Georgia’s coastal zone experiences the second highest tidal range on the U.S.eastern seaboard. Twice a day, the tides rise and fall from six to eight feet, submerging and then exposing Georgia’s 378,000 acres of salt marsh. These precious lands make up more than one-quarter of the remaining salt marshes on the east coast and nourish one of the most biologically productive ecosystems on earth.

UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant have been leaders in helping understand how estuarine ecosystem function and the impacts of human activities along the coast and hundreds of miles inland. Georgia’s vibrant coastal ecosystem supports commercial and recreational fisheries and a thriving tourist industry.

Yet, many threats exist for our marshes, estuarine waterways, fisheries and beaches, such as sea level rise and toxic residential septic tank and industrial plant waste. UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, along with their regional partners, promote and protect ecosystem health at the local, state and regional levels.

Georgia’s Coastal Geography

Georgia’s coast is lined with salt marshes that vary from four to six miles in width and lie between the mainland and a series of eight barrier island complexes containing 13 barrier islands. Like all barrier islands, these protect our coastline from storm surges and tidal action. Unlike other barrier island complexes in the U.S., however, Georgia’s are largely undeveloped.

At the end of the 19th Century, a number of wealthy northern industrial families, among them the Carnegies, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, purchased Georgia’s “Golden Isles” as private hunting retreats. Jekyll, Cumberland, Ossabaw, Sea, Sapelo, St. Catherines and Wassaw Islands were all privately owned until the middle of the 20th century. Having so much land in private hands for such a long period of time kept it from being developed, which in turn left much of Georgia’s coastal salt marshes relatively undisturbed.

Today state and federal governments own and manage most of Georgia’s barrier islands as parks, sanctuaries or wildlife preserves. Because they have experienced relatively little degradation, Georgia’s salt marshes are an ideal laboratory for ecosystem study. Two internationally recognized marine research centers, The UGA Marine Institute on Sapelo Island and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography on Skidaway Island, are located on Georgia’s coast.

Estuaries in Georgia

Estuaries and the adjacent land are a place of transition from land to ocean, and in Georgia this transition provides many habitats including open water, freshwater and salt marshes, swamps, sandy beaches, mud and sand flats, oyster reefs and sounds.

The waters and habitats found in the estuaries are sheltered from the open ocean by barrier islands and provide essential habitat for numerous birds, crustacean, fish, mammals and other wildlife species to live, feed and reproduce and are often called “the nursery of the sea.” The plants found in the freshwater and salt marsh wetlands not only provide habitat, but also help filter and clean the water draining from the uplands which carry sediments, nutrients and other pollutants. These wetlands act as natural barriers between the land and ocean and protect the upland from erosion, flood waters and storm surges.

Estuaries are important recreationally and commercially. They provide areas for recreational activities such as photography, fishing and kayaking and commercial activities such as tourism, fisheries and ports for shipping and transportation. UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant conduct research along Georgia’s 100 miles of coastline, identifying impacts to fresh and saltwater wetlands.

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