OGUNQUIT — Because healthy dunes provide necessary protection to a valuable estuary, this seaside community tries to maintain the stability and growth of its dunes by curtailing destructive pedestrian traffic.

In 1757, King George II of England issued a statement recognizing that livestock had the potential to overgraze and trample the sensitive dune vegetation, allowing the ocean to wash beach sand and waves across the dunes (a breach) and into the salt marsh. In order to protect the marsh, he proclaimed that colonists could not drive cattle or horses along the beach and were to be kept out of the dunes.

Penalties were set for people driving or grazing livestock through the dunes, and anyone caught mowing beach grass would be fined.
In many ways, the King’s 1757 beach and dune management plan is similar to that in place today in Ogunquit.

The town has gone to considerable lengths to protect dunes by eliminating pedestrian traffic on the dunes with fencing and the posting of penalties for trespassing in order to: sustain stabilizing dune grasses, protect endangered species from dune and estuary habitat loss, safeguard the uplands from storm damage and to maintain a healthy beach for recreation.

Just behind the length of Ogunquit Beach’s dune system lies the estuary of the Ogunquit River, where ocean saltwater mixes with freshwater from rivers and streams during the tidal ebb and flow.

Estuaries and the lands surrounding them are places of transition from land to sea, and from freshwater to saltwater. Although influenced by the tides, estuaries are protected from the full force of ocean waves, winds and storms by barrier islands or fingers of land, mud or sand that surround them. Estuarine ecologies support key ecosystems such as fish breeding, aquatic organisms and plant diversity.

The Abanaki Indians called the estuary “Between-Land,” not quite land and not quite water. Each summer, Maine’s Native Americans gathered in large groups to camp along its shores to fish and dig clams.

The sheltered waters of estuaries are home to countless plants and animals that like to live in water that is part fresh and part salty. Examples include horseshoe crabs, ospreys and seagrasses.

Hundreds of fish, such as striped bass, salmon and flounder, and shellfish, such as scallops, shrimp and mussels, live in estuaries at some point in their life.

Estuaries protect water quality by filtering out dirt and pollution. In addition, estuaries and the land surrounding them are home to natural habitats for shorebirds, migrating fowl and other marine species.

Salt marshes are one typical habitat type occurring commonly in estuaries. Salt marshes are particularly important because they are among the most productive habitats on earth and are home to a wealth of plant and wildlife species. Salt marshes are technically wetlands, but are included here because they are a dominant component of many estuaries.

A natural wonder of the salt marsh is the way different species of plants and animals work together for their mutual survival. The ribbed mussel clings to the base of the marsh grass known as Spartina alterniflora for stability. It eats the plankton and other organisms in the marsh; its waste then produces a richly nutrient mussel manure that keeps the marsh thriving.

Besides all their other well-known benefits – filtering out pollutants, protecting coastal communities from floods – salt marshes are excellent carbon sinks, correcting C02 levels in the atmosphere. An acre of salt marsh can produce up to 10 tons of organic material a year, absorbing and storing carbon all the while. It’s as if the barrier marshes, aware that they are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise, are working overtime to keep C02 increases at bay.

Today our protective measures for the estuary go well beyond King George’s concerns, as we must also deal with a host of environmental contamination, such as toxic stormwater runoff, raw sewage from septic systems, phosphates, petrochemicals, invasive species and biological taint – serious threats to the health of the river, estuary and abutting beach areas.

Maine’s beaches not only represent a precious natural habitat, but have also become a valuable economic resource.

Forward-looking communities must develop active programs to alleviate ongoing habitat loss and pollution arising from increased population, development growth and depletion of important open spaces.

— Special to the Press Herald