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What is an estuary, anyway?
Go Green Galloway

What is an estuary, anyway?

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Expanding on the Friends Along The Mullica project, I think it will be important to define terms.

When we speak of the Mullica River estuary we are talking about the places where the salt water coming in from the Atlantic Ocean at the Little Egg Inlet meets and mixes with the fresh water coming down the Mullica River. Most of this estuary is known as Great Bay, well known along the East Coast as a baseline clean and productive ecosystem.

However, the salt water/freshwater interface line actually extends up the Mullica River approximately 12 miles from the ocean; almost to the bridge at Lower Bank. This mixture of fresh and salt water is generally referred to as “brackish” water. Where this estuary mixing effect occurs, there is a tremendous amount of transference of nutrients and minerals in the form of silts, micro-organisms, organic breakdown products from the Pinelands, etc. Not surprisingly, it is often where there is a lot of fish activity as they seek out these valuable nutrients.

The marvelous transfer of energy in the bay and wetlands takes place in the water column and also on the surface and edges of the marsh. Normal tidal flow and downstream flushing keeps the interactions going constantly. The relatively shallow waters allow for penetration of sunlight for growth of marine plants that provide habitat and nutrition. It is in the estuary that fish may be spawned or where larval fish come in from the ocean to feed, grow and seek refuge from predators. The meadow edges, marsh grasses and surface ponds provide “nursery” areas for not only fish, but crabs, worms, shellfish, and all manner of invertebrate, vertebrate life up into the various mammals like muskrats, minks, otters, birds and foxes.

In each consideration of the Mullica Estuary and upstream river, we need to be aware of how climate change, stronger storms and human actions may affect the system. The sweeping proposals by the Army Corps of Engineers for massive mechanical inlet gates, levees, meadow creation, living shorelines, dredging, etc. will force changes to existing ecosystems. Changes in salinity, flow, temperature, depth, turbidity, etc., can all have profound changes on the established marine ecology.

An excellent indicator or bellwether species in the Mullica estuary is the oyster. Somehow the oyster has rebounded from or resisted dreadful diseases and poor historical practices to be a viable and growing industry again. Oyster farmers have developed methods of carefully nurturing the growth of the oyster in this clean and nutrient rich Great Bay and adjacent Little Egg Harbor/ Barnegat Bay. Part of the long term solution for the oyster to return on a consistent basis is to do as much as possible to right the historic wrong of taking the empty shells from the bay. The young offspring of oysters, or spat, need the shells to attach themselves to for growth. This key interaction is being carefully restored by cleaning and sunbleaching shells used up by restaurants, processing plants, etc. and scattering them back onto the bay floor. Aside from being a much desired food for humans, oysters and other shellfish play a huge role in filtering and purifying the waters that surround them.

Just as the estuary performs its ancient functions through thick and thin, it is important for all Friends Along The Mullica to restore their system-wide commitment to support natural treasures such as these.

Go Green Galloway is a volunteer organization dedicated to reducing the carbon footprint of Galloway through the promotion of energy efficiency and conservation, environmental education and the implementation of sustainable practices. We always welcome new volunteer members. Contact us at or call Mary at 609-742-7076. Also be sure to like our Facebook page.

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