The Wetlands Institute Celebrates 50 Years of Coastal Conservation
This weekend, The Wetlands Institute will celebrate its 50th Anniversary. Founded in 1969, The Wetlands Institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting wetlands and coastal ecosystems through research, education and conservation efforts.
The Institute was first created when the World Wildlife Fund, under the leadership of Executive Director Herbert Mills, purchased nearly 6000 acres of salt marsh in Cape May County. Mills had a vision of creating a center where people who lived in and visited the Jersey Shore could explore, discover and learn about coastal ecosystems and the importance of conservation. Mills was an avid birdwatcher and environmentalist who was concerned about the increase in water pollution and resulting loss of wildlife and wetlands that protect our shores due to human activity.
Thirty-four acres of the purchased land would become the home of The Wetlands Institute. A building, which officially opened in 1972, was designed by Malcolm Wells who was, at the time, at the forefront of environmental engineering. The building and surrounding grounds are home to research and conservation areas, laboratories, auditorium and classroom space, an aquarium, docks, trails and walkways, among other things. The remaining acres of wetlands were entrusted to the State of New Jersey which then created the Cape May Wetlands Wildlife Management Area to preserve the area.
Since then, the Institute has provided a fun, hands-on ability for people of all ages to engage in an interactive experience to create an interest in our coastal environment and its wildlife and a desire to become protectors of this important ecosystem.
For nearly 17 years, The Wetlands Institute was run by and served as a field station for Lehigh University. During this time, hundreds of research studies on a broad range of topics were conducted, including studies on the plants and animals that live in the shallow bays, tidal inlets and wetlands of South Jersey. Since 1986, the Institute’s Board of Directors, staff and volunteers worked hard to achieve status as a sustainable non-profit organization through various fund-raising efforts and other forms of continued support by the neighboring community.
Over the years, The Wetlands Institute has become a leader in the field of wetlands conservation, establishing multiple important research programs focusing on protecting and preserving – not only the wetland area itself, but of the plants and animals that thrive within it. Most notably is the Institute’s focus on diamond terrapins and various species of coastal birds. Through research studies, educational programs, undergraduate internships and trainings, the Wetlands Institute has remained at the forefront of an ever-evolving body of research revealing the importance to humans of the wetlands and its species, especially as our planet faces challenges with climate change, rising sea levels and a loss of biodiversity.
Each species living in and among the wetland areas are essential to the sustainability of the overall ecosystem. One such species is the diamondback terrapin, the only species of turtle believed to live solely within the brackish water of a salt marsh. This species helps sustain the environment because it feeds on snails that, in turn, feed on and destroy marsh grass. The marsh grass is crucial to the overall wetlands system because it helps hold in place the spongey mud and other plant life that works in coordination to filter toxins from the water and keep nature’s sponge in place. Without the marsh grass, wetlands would become barren mudflats. And without wetlands, our shores would forever be battered by encroaching waves and storm surge which long ago would have abolished the coastline we know and enjoy today.
For over 25 years, The Wetlands Institute has worked to protect the diamondback terrapin, which is listed as a “species of concern” due to several threats to its survival. These threats include destruction and alteration of wetlands, getting caught in fishing gear, and being hit by cars when females leave the marsh in order to lay eggs. In addition to educating the public about the importance and safety of terrapins, conducting research into preservation of their home areas, as well as launching a widespread awareness campaign, the Institute has developed other methods of protecting the turtles. These include the development of a Bycatch Reduction Device which successfully keeps terrapins out of crab traps, as well as creating barriers along shore roadways to keep turtles from wandering into traffic.
The Institute has a Horseshoe Crab Conservation Program that rescues stranded crabs. The horseshoe crab is considered a “living fossil” from over 30 million years ago. It is important not only to the survival of other species along the coast, but their blood offers considerable medical benefits to humans. The Institute also has a Monarch Butterfly Conservation Program as these beautiful creatures migrate through Cape May County each fall.
The Wetlands Institute is host to a plethora of activities and events for all ages, designed to educate and inspire future generations to be mindful and proactive in coastal conservation efforts. These activities include guided walks and tours by boat on the back bay, kayak and paddleboard tours, aquarium feedings, birding activities and special activities throughout the summer such as their Summer Celebration, Crabulous Crab Day and fun festivals featuring turtles, shorebirds and fall migration species.
If you would like to help support The Wetlands Institute, there are plenty of opportunities beyond simply visiting and learning more about our coast. You can volunteer to work in various capacities within the Institute or its programs on a long-term basis, or you can serve as a volunteer-for-a-day for their festivals, beach sweeps, public walks, spawning surveys and other Institute activities. If your passion is to work on behalf of one of their protected species, you can become a Research and Conservation Aide. The Institute offers “adoption” program where you can sponsor a terrapin, horseshoe crab or shorebird to assist in the research and conservation of the species. Several levels of memberships are offered to individuals and businesses to support the Institute’s many programs and comes with benefits such as free admission, newsletter and discounts for the gift shop.
The Wetlands Institute has accomplished so much in terms of research, education and conservation in its first fifty years. For the future, the Institute commits to continuing meaningful and impactful research, educating and informing the public and policy makers about their research and findings, training tomorrow’s scientists and environmental educators, as well as keeping the sustenance of our coastal environment and its species at the forefront of all they do.
This weekend is an opportunity for the Institute and its supporting community to celebrate its successes over the past half-century. The weekend-long celebration will include live music, nature walks, live animal demonstrations and arts and crafts. There will be educational opportunities through lectures, tours and history displays. Attendees can also participate in fishing, crabbing and kayaking activities. The Institute will continue to celebrate its anniversary throughout the year, including Free Admission Wednesdays for the first Wednesday of June, July, August and September.
The Wetlands Institute is open daily from 9:30 am – 4:30 pm until September 22, 2019, with special extended evening hours until 7:00 pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Between September – May, the Institute is only open on Saturdays and Sundays only.
Please visit their website to learn more about this amazing organization and find out how you can assist in its continued future successes on behalf our coastal ecosystems.