Georgia's barrier islands are largely undeveloped.
Healthy Coastal Ecosystems
Supporting and Understanding Our Environment
Georgia’s coastal zone experiences the second highest tidal range on the U.S eastern seaboard. Twice a day, the tides rise and fall from six to eight feet, submerging and then exposing Georgia’s 378,000 acres of salt marsh. These precious lands make up more than one quarter of the remaining salt marshes on the east coast and nourish one of the most biologically productive ecosystems on earth.
Georgia Sea Grant has been a leader in helping understand estuarine ecosystem function and the impacts of human activities along the coast and hundreds of miles inland. Georgia’s vibrant coastal ecosystem supports commercial and recreational fisheries and a thriving tourist industry. Yet many threats exist for our marshes, estuarine waterways, fisheries and beaches, such as sea level rise and toxic residential septic tank and industrial plant waste. Georgia Sea Grant and its regional partners promote and protect ecosystem health at the local, state and regional levels.
Georgia’s Coastal Geography
Georgia’s coast is lined with salt marshes that vary from four to six miles in width and lie between the mainland and a series of eight barrier island complexes containing 13 barrier islands. Like all barrier islands, these protect our coastline from storm surges and tidal action. Unlike other barrier island complexes in the U.S., however, Georgia’s are largely undeveloped. At the end of the 19th Century, a number of wealthy northern industrial families, among them the Carnegies, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, purchased Georgia’s “Golden Isles” as private hunting retreats. Jekyll, Cumberland, Ossabaw, Sea, Sapelo, St. Catherines and Wassaw Islands were all privately owned until the middle of the 20th century. Having so much land in private hands for such a long period of time kept it from being developed, which in turn left much of Georgia’s coastal salt marshes relatively undisturbed.
Today state and federal governments own and manage most of Georgia’s barrier islands as parks, sanctuaries or wildlife preserves. Because they have experienced relatively little degradation, Georgia’s salt marshes are an ideal laboratory for ecosystem study. Two internationally recognized marine research centers, The University of Georgia’s Marine Institute on Sapelo Island and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography on Skidaway Island, are located on Georgia’s coast.