Fish in the Bay – July 2023, Special Report: Marsh Plants in the restored Garden of Eden.

Summer is when the marsh turns greenest.  I have not blogged enough about plants.  

1. Oasis & Bass Sanctuary at Art1.

Clear dark water at the upstream end of Artesian Slough (station Art1) on 1 July 2023.

Water at Art1 is always freshest owing to the ongoing discharge from the San Jose-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility. 

  • However, the big rains earlier this year are still keeping the sloughs a little fresher than usual as of July. Upstream salinity readings at Art1, UCoy1, and Dump1 were essentially the same = 3.3 to 3.6 ppt.


Water color was muddy green at the downstream end of the Art1 trawl.

Gammarids.  Gammarids are bigger cousins of the more familiar Corophium.  Both are part of the bigger amphipod order in the crustacean subphylum.  They are busy little bugs that have a huge impact on the ecosystem. 

In at least one sense, Amphipods and tinier Copepods perform similar ecosystem functions.  They both consume massive amounts of microscopic lifeforms.  In doing so, they concentrate delicious carbon as fats and proteins.  Gammarids like Corophium are the best food for our local birds and fishes.  (I have read that amphipods taste like crab or shrimp.  Most crustaceans seem to have that flavor.)  The Striped Bass probably feed on Gammarids after the Bass have eaten most of the available native small fishes. 

  • NEVER eat an uncooked amphipod. We must assume parasites are present.  One could easily be infected with a stomach ailment at the very least – or something much worse
  • Some parasites are very nasty. Don’t take chances! Filter or boil marsh water before ingesting. 
  • Watch this video. (This is President Carter’s greatest contribution to humanity):


Striped Bass at Art1.  We caught 13 lively and frisky Striped Bass exclusively at Art1.  We observed 4 dead ones at stations Art3, Coy1, Dump1, and Alv1.  The pattern suggests that non-native Striped Bass may be seeking refuge. The warm summer marsh nurtures a vast abundance of microscopic organisms (food). But, the organisms also respire and draw down Dissolved Oxygen (DO), particularly at night. 

  • Striped Bass are far less tolerant of low Dissolved Oxygen than most native species.
  • Striped Bass suffer and die of heat stress around 25 degrees C.
  • A number of local anglers have long known that Art1 is a hotspot for Striped Bass fishing.

Water quality that supports healthy Striped Bass (and all other spawning fishes) is an “attainment of a beneficial use” under California water quality standards.  We measured the Bass quickly, took a few photos, and released them. 


2. A sidenote about H. akashiwo & the red tide.

Late summer is H. akashiwo season.  We are now keeping a close eye on the water at each station.  Any sign of dark reddish-brown stain must be investigated. 

  • Clean, clear water looks black. Waters rapidly turn turbid green or brown as natural populations of phytoplankton increase. 
  • The change is always rapid and dramatic as we proceed downstream in Artesian Slough.


A note from Daimon Tighe:  If you see the red tide or dead fish, please report to Baykeeper Pollution Hotline and/or on iNaturalist.


3. Rebounding marsh sedges and grasses.

Update:  I found a better version of the marsh plant poem:
“Sedges have edges. Rushes are round.
Grasses have knees that bend to the ground.”

California Bulrush at the Leslie Salt sign on Artesian Slough.

Big winter rains make tall fresher water plants wander downstream.  As explained last month, we are seeing a big rebound of California bulrush this year.  The old Leslie Salt pipeline crossing sign between stations Art2 and Art3 is a convenient benchmark.  

  • During the drought years, California Bulrush did not grow this far downstream.
  • A single rainy season resurrected it well downstream of the sign.

California Bulrush (Schoenoplectus californicus, also commonly called “Tule”) is a sedge.


California Bulrush is once again lush and dense on the eastern side of Pond A19 as well.  This same beach was essentially bare mudflat as late as 2016. A dense bulrush stand grew to cover most of this shoreline between 2017 to 2020. Drought years clobbered it: Bulrush disappeared altogether after year two of the drought.  I felt certain that it would never return.

  • Just three months after big rains, the bulrush has completely recovered!


California Bulrush, east side of Pond A19 on 1 July 2023.

Rejuvenated bulrush is now growing farther back (deeper) into the old mudflat. Bulrush rhizomes under the mud must have lain dormant for two years.  Plant growth exploded as soon as the winter flushing flood subsided. 


California Bulrush is important habitat for Red-winged Blackbirds, Tricolor Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens, and many other species.


Cattails in Dump Slough, 1 July 2023.

We spotted stands of cattails near upstream ends of Coyote Creek, Dump Slough, and Artesian Slough.  Cattails are very sensitive to salinity.  The water must be nearly fresh for them to sprout here.


Cattail (Typha angustifolia, Typha domingensis, Typha latifolia, etc.) is a sedge.


As we motored downstream in each slough, we observed the typical succession of plants from freshest to saltiest:  1) Cattail, 2) California Bulrush, 3) Alkali Bulrush & Atriplex, then finally, 4) Pickleweed & Spartina.

Alkali Bulrush
(Scirpus maritimus, also Bolboschoenus maritimus) is yet another sedge.


Spartina, Pickleweed, and Alkali Bulrush grow densely across the former gypsum plain of restored Pond A21.


Spartina cordgrass (Sporobolus foliosus, aka Spartina foliosa, aka California cordgrass) is a grass.


Red Gracilaria – a red algae under the water.  We picked up a few larger sprigs of Gracilaria in July.  A few years ago, I had hopes that Red Gracilaria and Cryptopleura would become widely established as Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV).  Alas, we have not seen much red algae over the last few years.  This is the first time in a while that we have seen substantial-sized bunches of it. 


4. Other Useful Plants.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is part of the carrot family.


Gum Plant (Grindelia sp.) is a member of the sunflower family.


Peppergrass (Lepidium sp.) is a member of the mustard & cabbage family.


5. New Taste Tests.

Ulva, a green algae, was described in the previous June blog post.  As noted there, Ulva is edible and can be highly nutritious. 

We again found floating bits of the Ulva intestinalis form at station Art2, so naturally, it was time for a taste test. 

  • Micah, Sami, and I each chewed a piece after washing with copious amounts of chlorinated drinking water.
  • Ulva tastes good. It has a subtle but distinct nutty flavor.
  • After tasting we promptly spat our pieces out because heavy metals contamination is very probable in this historically highly disturbed marsh. Safety First!!!

We performed the same taste-test experiment on some California bulrush growing at Alv1.

  • California Bulrush also tastes good. It is slightly sweet and tastes completely fresh without a hint of salt. 


Interestingly, Atriplex, growing right next to the California bulrush, tasted very salty.

Atriplex (aka Saltbush, aka Orache, also goes by many other names) is a member of the goosefoot (spinach) family. There are many species of Atriplex.  I presume the primary marsh variety we find here is Atriplex prostrata.


Some other interesting varieties of Atriplex.


Atriplex hortensis. (aka Mountain spinach, Spanish lettuce, red orache, etc.) 

  • “The favored species for human consumption is now usually garden orache (A. hortensis), but many species are edible and the use of Atriplexas food is known since at least the late … Mesolithic.”
  • “… used as a leaf vegetable that was common before spinach … The leaves are used cooked or raw in salads. The green leaves were once used to color pasta in Italy.


Atriplex confertifolia. (aka Shadscale saltbush) “is a desert plant. … The fruits and leaves are a food source for deer, desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn, small rodents, jackrabbits, game birds, and songbirds.   Shadscale saltbush provides good browse for domestic sheep and goats. 


Atriplex triangularis. (aka Halberd-Leaved Saltbush or Spearscale)  …may be used as a substitute for spinach.  The leaves have a natural salt content that blends well with a little lemon.  Palatable raw but is best cooked without salt as a potherb.” 

Also, an extra warning.  Herbicides and other pesticides might be used in this area.  DO NOT ingest local plants!

6. Summary. 

All but a few of these plants were eaten or used by humans since at least the mid-to-late Stone Age.  —  The marsh is a “Garden of Eden” by definition. 

Strawberry Fields

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