Lesson Plan

Life of the Salt Marsh

students use seine nets to collect fish samples
Students conduct a biologic inventory of fish, crabs, comb jellies and other organisms


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Grade Level:
Fourth Grade-Twelfth Grade
1 hour
Group Size:
Up to 24 (4-8 breakout groups)
in the park


Salt marsh ecosystems are one of the most productive areas in the world. Students learn about producers, consumers, decomposers and the flow of energy and nutrients through hands-on, feet-wet activities. Students will improve their understanding of these critical habitats while sampling fish populations, identifying organisms and measuring abiotic parameters.


Students will be able to:
Understand purpose of biologic and ecologic monitoring and inventories
Recognize factors that force changes in an environment
Hypothesize responses and adaptations of various organisms to changes in their environment
Define Bioindicator Species
Design and create Food Webs
Recognize role of Plankton in aquatic ecosystem
Explain impacts of water quality on organisms
List primary concerns related to climate change
Foster a sense of place and personal connections that leads to stewardship
Understand what a watershed is, what their local watershed is and why it is unique
Appreciate the importance of reliable data collection and the value of data analysis
Enhance understanding that students are impacted by and have an impact on water quality, leading to real world applications and civic responsibility

Have a hands on, positive and FUN experience outdoors!


The global climate is changing. The ocean is warming. A warming ocean affects the volume and the height of the sea due to thermal expansion and the melting of land-based ice. Climate scientists predict that the oceans around the mid-Atlantic coast will rise 1 meter by the year 2100. A rise of 1 meter will have a dramatic effect on our coastlines. A 1 meter increase will flood many of the world's largest cities and result in the loss of two-thirds of the coastal wetlands in the United States 

Salt marshes are wetland ecosystems found along an open coastline or within an estuary. The mass of plants and animals (biomass) that is produced naturally on an acre of salt marsh is greater than what is produced on fertilized farmland. Wetlands have a rich food supply that supports many species and add greatly to global biodiversity. Wetlands provide such a safe place for the young animals that they are called the nurseries of the sea. The thick plant growth in wetlands traps sediments, filters out pollutants, and controls flooding. The plants in wetlands that grow above the surface of the water take up carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and release oxygen. 

Organisms need specific conditions to thrive or survive. Scientists predict these conditions will be altered as the climate changes. In a salt marsh, there is a delicate balance between salinity, dissolved oxygen, turbidity and temperature. A change in any of these factors may affect the health and survival of the organisms living in the marshes. 

A loss of salt marsh will also cause a loss in local economies. A large number of fish species and shellfish depend on salt marshes for food and shelter during some part of their life.  As populations of these commercial fisheries diminish, so will the jobs and industry. 

To protect our salt marshes and other wetlands, we must recognize their importance, understand how our actions affect these areas and develop ways to minimize the loss and disruption of these critical habitats.



Students will take a pre and post assessment test. Student photographs and sketches will be uploaded to park Flickr page and student data will be posted to Hands on the Land webpage.

Park Connections

Assateague Island National Seashore is one of the few remaining intact barrier islands in the Mid-Atlantic coast. Most of the other barrier islands have been heavily developed and their ecological systems and services severly disrupted. The park is a valuable labratory and classroom for students to learn about natural resource managment, protection and stewardship.


Resource list:








Microscope: http://www.celestron.com/science_education/microscopes.html

 Nets: http://www.brunsonnet.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=category.display&category_id=71

 Water quality test kits: http://www.lamotte.com/environmental_education_monitoring/product_line/water_monitoring_kits.html




Barrier Island- coastal formation that separates open ocean from the mainland by an estuary or lagoon.
Zoo and phytoplankton- passive or week swimming organisms suspended in a water column.
Nekton-  actively swimming aquatic organisms able to move independently of water currents.
Watershed- an area of land where surface water from rain and melting snow or ice converges to a single point, usually the exit of the basin, where the waters join another waterbody, such as a river, lake, reservoir, estuary, wetland, sea, or ocean.
Estuary- semi-enclosed coastal bodies of water that have free connection with the open sea and within which sea water mixes with fresh water.
Trophic level- position of species in the food chain.
Autotroph- organism that produces its own food (photosynthesis, chemical synthesis).
Heterotroph- Organism that get energy by consuming other organism.
Abiotic- non-living components in an ecosystem (water, air, rocks, heat, sun).
Biotic- living parts of an ecosystem (bacteria, plants, animals).
Turbidity- Amount of suspended particles in water.
Salinity- total amount of dissolved ions present in sea water.
Inventory and monitoring- Inventory the natural resources to determine their nature and status and monitor park ecosystems to better understand their dynamic nature and condition and to provide reference points for comparisons with other, altered environments.
Bioindicator species- a sensitive species in a region that acts as an early warning to monitoring biologists.
Arthropoda- Phylum of invertebrate animals with jointed legs and segmented bodies (crabs, shrimp, lobsters).
Crustacean- Class within Arthropda phylum with all members being decapods (5 pairs of legs) and a carapace of chitin.