Coastal Resources


Beaches & Dunes
Small dune system
Small dune system with American beach grass.
Waterford Backdune
Back dune area with shrubs.

What Are They?

For many of us, the summer would not be complete without at least one trip to the beach – that sandy, sometimes rocky area between Long Island Sound and land. Beaches and dunes are formed by water and wind currents and erosion. With Long Island forming a protective barrier, the Connecticut coast is not subject to the same intensity of water and wind currents as those coastal areas lying directly adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean. For this reason, dune systems are smaller and less well developed along our coastline than in other coastal states. 


One of the most common and important plants of these dunes is American beach grass (Ammophila breviligulata). This grass has an extensive root system and can spread via underground stems or rhizomes. This root system acts as a natural erosion control device, helping to stabilize the shifting sands of the dunes. Other plants that may be found on the beaches, dunes or sand flats are dusty miller, sea rocket, Virginia rose, beach plum, northern bayberry, and the state listed plant, seabeach sandwort (Honckenya peploides). 

Why They’re Important

Many birds, native plants, several reptiles and invertebrates depend on these areas for survival.  Numerous birds use the beaches and dune system as nesting and feeding areas. Piping plovers and least terns are two state listed birds that nest along the shoreline. Another animal that has been observed along the Connecticut shoreline and tidal marshes is the diamondback terrapin, a small turtle (5-7 inch shell length) named for the diamond patterns on its top shell. This turtle lays eggs in the sand in the early summer. 

Threats to the beaches, dunes and their inhabitants are numerous – ranging from habitat loss to invasive species. Disturbances include pedestrian, vehicular, and boat traffic, pets and feral animals.


For more detailed information download Coastal Beaches & Dunes (PDF).


Long Island Sound Study, Long Island Sound Habitat Restoration Initiative - Visit the Coastal Barriers, Beaches and Dunes PDF Document

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Grasslands & Shrublands
Coastal Meadow

What Are They?

Within New England, coastal grasslands and shrublands are ecologically significant ecosystems with limited occurrence. They are found on sandy or gravelly soils of glacial origin with their biota influenced by a maritime climate. They are maintained by periodic disturbances – both natural and anthropogenic. The largest occurrences are found on Long Island, Cape Cod and associated islands. Development, succession and loss of cultural processes such as grazing, plowing, and burning have led to the loss of these habitats throughout Long Island and New England.


Bunch-forming grasses are generally dominant with species such as little bluestem, poverty grass, and common hairgrass. In post-agricultural fields one often finds asters, goldenrods and other perennials mixing with the grasses. Woody plants may be found here as well – blueberries, huckleberries, and red cedar, with invasive shrubs rapidly overtaking the area if no control steps are taken.

Why They’re Important

Many of these coastal habitats have been lost through development of these highly desirable sites or due to lack of disturbance and subsequent succession by woody and/or invasive species. Given the limited occurrence of these areas, as they disappear, numerous species that are limited to such sites have become endangered and some, extinct. For example, these areas provide habitat for numerous federal and state listed rare plant and animal species such as sandplain gerardia, bushy rockrose, Northern harrier, and grasshopper and Savannah sparrows. 

In 2006, the CT Department of Environmental Protection announced a new initiative to conserve grassland habitat. Working with numerous partners, this program is aimed at preserving grasslands statewide. 


For more detailed information download Coastal Grasslands & Shrublands (PDF).


Long Island Sound Study, Long Island Sound Habitat Restoration Initiative - Visit the Coastal Grasslands PDF Document

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Forests & Woodlands
Coastal Forest

What is it?

Coastal forests are found along the coast and are subject to a maritime climate. These forests do not receive daily salt spray (as a true maritime forest may), but can be subject to wind and salt spray during storm events. 


Oak trees, particularly black, white, chestnut and scarlet, are the dominant trees of these forests. Other trees that may be intermixed with the oaks include black cherry, sassafras, red maple, beech, tupelo, white pine and pitch pine. Low lying shrubs such as low bush blueberries and black huckleberry. Vines are very characteristic of coastal forest edges and openings including Virginia creeper, poison ivy, grape and greenbriers.

Why They’re Important

Due to intense agricultural and development pressures, Connecticut has very little forest left within the coastal zone. What is left is often heavily browsed by deer and invaded by non-native species. Raising awareness of where and what these forests are will aid in protection and restoration efforts.


For more detailed information download Coastal Forests & Woodlands (PDF).

Tidal Marshes
High Marsh
High marsh with salt meadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) and the characteristic "cow-licked" appearance.

A salt marsh panne with glasswort.
High Marsh
Low marsh with smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora).
Brackish Marsh
Brackish tidal meadow with cattails.
Freshwater Marsh
Freshwater tidal marsh with pickerel weed and wild rice.

What is it?

Tidal marshes are Focus on the Coast's priority coastal resource #1. Tidal marshes include all vegetated wetlands along the coast and along the tidal stretches of our coastal rivers. There are salt, brackish and freshwater tidal marshes. Tidal marshes provide invaluable protected habitat for many juvenile fish species, birds, and other wildlife, help to cleanse polluted water, and protect against storms and floods.


The dominant plant of our coastal salt marshes is Spartina, or cordgrass. Smooth cord-grass (Spartina alterniflora) occurs along the regularly flooded lower margins of the salt marsh, while saltmeadow cordgrass, also known as salt hay (Spartina patens), grows on the higher elevations of the marsh where flooding is irregular. Salt hay is easily recognized by its “cow-licked” appearance in the marsh. Spartina has special glands that enable it to excrete excess salt; an adaptation that well suits it to its coastal environment. Other plants of the salt marsh include black grass, seaside goldenrod and spike grass. In the high marsh, one sometimes finds low-lying areas called “pannes.” Salt water collects in these depressions during high tide and then slowly evaporates creating high salinity levels in the soil. Sea lavender, glasswort, and salt marsh plantain are often found growing in these pannes

Brackish tidal marshes occur where the saline waters of Long Island Sound mix with fresh water from coastal rivers and other sources. Within these areas, one finds many of the same species found in salt marshes such as smooth cord grass but a closer inspection reveals numerous other species as well such as spike-rush and eastern lilaeopsis. Those familiar with these coastal areas know that these brackish marshes are often dominated by tall reed-like plants – either cattails (Typha spp.) or common reed (Phragmites australis). The CT Dept. of Environmental Protection, The Nature Conservancy, Connecticut College, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension, and numerous land trusts and other groups have worked in many of the marshes along our coast to try to control and monitor the spread of Phragmites australis.

As one moves farther inland along the larger coastal rivers, the marshes are no longer affected by the saline waters of the Sound, but are still influenced by the tides. Freshwater tidal marshes and flats are home to a wide diversity of plants.  Cattails, sweetflag, pickerelweed, arrow-arum and bulrushes are just a few of the plants to be found. Stands of wild rice (Zizania aquatica) are most conspicuous in the late fall, and provide food for migratory waterfowl. Snapping turtles, water snakes, numerous mollusks, insects and fish live, feed, and lay eggs in these marshes, the tidal flats and creeks.

Why Are They Important?

These habitats are among the most productive on the planet, providing food, nurseries, resting areas during storms and migrations and homes for a multitude of animals. The marshes serve as a buffer during storm events, help to slow shoreline erosion and act as a filter, absorbing excess nutrients. The marshes provide food, habitat and nursery areas for many fish and shellfish species. Most of our commercially and recreationally important fisheries rely on the productivity of coastal salt marshes. Because salt creates challenges for plant growth, only specialized plants can live in true salt marshes. These natural communities provide, in turn, specialized habitats for unique and often rare species of animals. About 45% of all endangered and threatened species rely on estuarine and coastal waters for survival; many specifically need salt marshes.

What Else Should I Consider?

Tidal marshes are directly subject to state regulation under the Connecticut Coastal Management Act, as opposed to inland wetlands, which are regulated by local commissions.


NOAA Fisheries' Office of Habitat Conservation, the Habitat Protection Division - Visit the Wetlands section

Long Island Sound Study, Long Island Sound Habitat Restoration Initiative - Visit the Tidal Wetlands Document


Photo: Least shrew: from the Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals, ed. by D. Wilson & S. Ruff
Photo: American bittern, Arthur Morris
Photo: Blue crabs, Tom Darden

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Submerged Aquatic Vegetation
Wild Celery SAV
Wild Celery
Wild Celery (Vallisneria americana

What is it?

Submerged aquatic vegetation (or SAV) are rooted, vascular (having veins to transport fluids) plants that grow underwater or just up to the water’s surface, often forming large stands or “beds.” There are over a dozen SAV species occurring in the salt, brackish and fresh tidal waters of Connecticut. These plants lack structural support tissues, relying instead on the surrounding water for support. In addition, the stems and leaves have specialized thin-walled cells with large intercellular air spaces that provide buoyancy and support. Light penetration, water temperature and quality, substrate, and salinity are several of the major factors affecting SAV distribution and abundance.

SAV beds provide food, critical habitat and nursery areas for many fish and invertebrate species. In addition, the distribution and abundance of these beds are associated with water quality. Nutrient enrichment of our coastal waters has led to decline of these beds throughout the world.


The SAV most commonly found in Long Island Sound is eelgrass (Zostera marina). Eelgrass has long, ribbon-like leaves and is found in the saline waters of Long Island Sound. Beds of eelgrass are important habitat for many fish and invertebrates as well as an important food source for waterfowl.

While having much shorter leaves than eelgrass, widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima) is one of the most highly valued SAV species as a food source for waterfowl. Tolerating a wide range of salinities, it can be found in the tidal creeks and ponds of the salt marshes as well as the shallower waters of the Sound.

During the 1930’s “wasting disease” decimated 90% of the eelgrass in the North Atlantic. While eelgrass beds recovered in eastern Long Island Sound, few beds recovered in the central and western portions of the Sound, possibly due to nitrogen enrichment. The CT Dept. of Environmental Protection is working with partners to map eelgrass beds and look at long term trends.

In brackish and freshwater tidal rivers creeks, and ponds, numerous SAV ‘s are found. One of the most common species is wild celery (Vallisneria americana) – another important food source for waterfowl. Often confused with eelgrass, wild celery has a light green stripe in the center of its leaves and prefers lower salinity, while eelgrass is found in waters with higher salinity levels.

Why They're Important

SAV beds are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet, capable not only of harnessing the sun’s energy, but providing essential nurseries and food for an abundance of coastal and estuarine life. More than 20 types of commercially valuable finfish and shellfish feed in eelgrass beds at some point in their lives. Research in Chesapeake Bay has shown that the density of blue crabs is thirty times greater in grass beds than in unvegetated areas of the Bay. In addition, SAV beds help protect shorelines from erosion by stabilizing sediment and modifying currents, as well as filter nutrients from the water column.

This submerged vegetation is also a valuable food for waterfowl and small mammals, providing nutritious seeds, roots and tubers. Some waterfowl names actually indicate the type of SAV they prefer. For example, canvasback ducks (Aythya valisneria) often feed in beds of wild celery (Vallisneria americana).


Long Island Sound Study, Long Island Sound Habitat Restoration Initiative - Visit the Submerged Aquatic Vegetation PDF Document

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Migratory Fish Runs
Photo: Upper Millpond Dam Fishway (dry), Old Lyme, Connecticut: Courtesy of Old Lyme Conservation Trust

Numerous fish undergo some form of migration which is usually for feeding or breeding purposes. Migration can be daily or annual, and range from several meters to great distances. There are several types of migratory fish, and the kind we’re describing here are called diadromous fish. These are fish that travel between salt and fresh water. These are some of our most ecologically and economically valuable species, like blueback herring, Atlantic striped bass, American shad and American eel. To keep 'em comin' back, you need to know where their preferred streams are. These maps have been recently created by the CT DEP's Marine Fisheries Unit, who know more about fish habitat than the fish themselves

What is it?

There are three types of diadromous fish (fish that travel between salt and fresh water):

Anadromous fish live most of their adult lives in salt water, migrating to freshwater to breed. After the eggs hatch, the young fish spend varying lengths of time in freshwater before migrating to saltwater where they mature. The fish eventually return to freshwater to spawn. Only one percent of all fish in the world are anadromous; these fish undergo physiological changes that allow them to survive as they move between fresh and salt water. On the east coast, anadromous fish include river herring (American shad, alewife and blueback herring), Atlantic striped bass, Atlantic salmon and shortnose sturgeon.

Catadromous fish live in fresh water and migrate to salt water to breed. An example of a catadromous fish is the American eel.

Amphidromous fish move between salt and fresh water during their lives, but not for breeding purposes.

Why are They Important?

Both of these fish are important to the aquatic food chain; they are preyed upon by other fish, as well as provide food for birds and other animals. In addition, a single female may produce up to 200,000 eggs, only a few of which survive to maturity; the rest become food for other species.

Species: Alewife and Blueback Herring
Although similar in appearance, the alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) has a larger eye, is gray-green and is usually longer than the blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis). The blueback herring is blue-grey. Both fish have a prominent dark shoulder spot, and the females are larger and heavier than the males.

Alewife (ocean-run) (Alosa pseudoharengus)

Blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis)


Fact Sheets from the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission

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Invasive Species

What is a Native Species and what is an Invasive Species?

On February 3, 1999, President William Clinton signed Executive Order 13112 which provided official U.S. definitions of invasive and native species:

“Native species” means, with respect to a particular ecosystem, a species that, other than as a result of an introduction, historically occurred or currently occurs in that ecosystem.

“Invasive species” means an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.

“Alien species” means, with respect to a particular ecosystem, any species, including its seeds, eggs, spores, or other biological material capable of propagating that species, that is not native to that ecosystem.

What are some of the common invasive species found on Connecticut's Coast?

The two species in Connecticut subject to the most extensive control efforts are Common Reed (Phragmites australis) and Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). 

Common Reed (Phragmites australis)
Common Reed, Phragmites australis

Common Reed

Common Reed is a clonal grass found throughout the United States, and is very common on the east coast in brackish and freshwater tidal and non-tidal marshes.  Common reed has been a component of wetlands for 100’s of years, but approximately 150 years ago, populations expanded forming large stands and crowding out other vegetation. Through genetic testing, scientists have recently determined that there is native Phragmites australis and a non-native strain that was probably brought from EurAsia in ships’ ballast waters. This non-native strain looks so similar to the native plant that its arrival went unnoticed, and in numerous wetlands, it became the dominant plant. The native Phragmites australis is shorter in height than the non-native strain, and does not form dense monospecific stands.

Over time, tidal flow in many coastal wetlands was reduced due to culvert size, filling in of mosquito ditches, and dredging and filling activities. The reduction of salinity levels in these coastal wetlands allowed the invasive Common Reed to rapidly expand, forming large monocultures. The CT Department of Environmental Protection Office of Long Island Sound Programs has worked extensively on tidal wetland restoration projects. By restoring tidal flow to coastal marshes, removing fill, and cutting and herbiciding the Common Reed, native vegetation has the opportunity to become re-established. 

Of note, scientists, working on the lower Connecticut River in 2006, found populations of the native Phragmites australis (confirmed through genetic testing) growing intermingled with other native vegetation.

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)

Purple Loosetrife
Lythrum salicaria (Purple loosestrife). Photo from the National Park Service.

Purple loosestrife is a Eurasian native introduced into the United States in the early 1800’s through both ships’ ballast and as a garden plant. This perennial with bright, purple flowers is found in freshwater wetlands throughout much of the U.S. With a high tolerance for a wide range of environmental conditions, it can quickly spread and overtake native wetland vegetation forming dense, monospecific stands. 

Small stands of loosestrife may be pulled by hand (preferably before seed set), but all root and stem pieces need to be removed as they can resprout. For larger infestations, chemical and biological control may be used. However, herbicides will kill other plants and state permits may be required if the plants are in standing water. Three insect predators (two beetle species and one weevil) have been released in several Connecticut wetlands in an attempt to control loosestrife populations using biological control methods.

For more information on purple loosestrife, how to report loosestrife sightings, and how to be a volunteer beetle farmer, please see the following website:

Here is a short description of several other species:

Rosa rugosa
Rugosa rose (photo by Nancy Balcolm)

Rugosa rose

Rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa): Beachgoers will recognize this shrub that is often found growing on dunes and sand flats near the shore. This rose has shiny, dark leaves with large flowers ranging in color from white to dark pink. The fruits are large rose hips sometimes used in jellies and teas. Rugosa rose can form dense thickets and does provide sand stabilization. With its thorny branches, it can also be used to direct pedestrians at dune crossings. However, it does displace native vegetation. This species is listed as potentially invasive in Connecticut and considered noxious in other states. Northern Europe and the Baltic also list it as an invasive alien due to its negative impact on native flora, and it is suggested that it not be planted within at least 50 km of the coast in the associated countries.


Grateloupiaturuturu (a red seaweed)

Grateloupiaturuturu (a red seaweed) This Asian Pacific native was first noted in Long Island Sound in 2004 and may be competing with a native red seaweed (Irish moss) for space, nutrients, and light. Iris moss is important for blue mussel and\other invertebrate habitat. For more information on this fast growing invader and how to identify it, please go to the following URL:

What are some of the common ANIMAL invasive species found on Connecticut's coast?

Asian stalked tunicate (Styela clava) – A tunicate is also called a sea squirt. These marine animals attach to piers, docks, boat hulls, and seaweeds. The Asian stalked tunicate is brown or yellow reaching about 15 cm in length. They are native to Japan and were found in Long Island Sound in 1982, most likely introduced by ballast water. They compete for the same habitat as the blue mussel.

Asian shore crab (Hemigrapsus sanguineus) – This small (7–8 cm) crab is a native to Japan and was probably introduced by ballast water. First seen in New Jersey in 1988, this species rapidly spread along the mid-Atlantic and southern New England coasts. It lives in the rocky intertidal and subtidal zone, and is a prolific breeder – with a breeding season twice that of native crabs. This crab is an omnivore with a broad diet including young shellfish and crabs, larval and juvenile fish, algae and salt marsh grass. Scientists are researching this crab and the impacts of its invasion on other species. 

There are many other invasive species, and this section of Focus on the Coast will periodically change to provide descriptions of other species.

Did you know…?

Smooth Cordgrass
Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass)

Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass) is a native plant along the eastern and Gulf coasts where it is an important component of the salt and brackish tidal marshes. This species was introduced on the west coast both by accident and on purpose. In the 1970’s smooth cordgrass was introduced into the San Francisco Bay as part of a project to help stabilize the shoreline. Since its introduction, smooth cordgrass has invaded tidal flats where it replaces native vegetation, causing loss of habitat for salmon and oysters and poses threats to navigation. In addition, in San Francisco Bay, smooth cordgrass has hybridized with the California cordgrass (Spartina foliosa), a native species. The hybrid grows faster than either parent threatening both native plant and animal species. Extensive control efforts involving thousands of acres are currently underway.

Phragmites australishas been used for centuries to make thatch roofs. These beautiful roofs are made from bundles of dried stems and attached directly to the rafters. Thatch roofs are at least one foot thick, are great insulators and can last for 70 years with little maintenance. While much more common in Europe, one will occasionally see a thatched roof on a home or barn in New England. 


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