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Salt Island! A Natural Treasure of Cape Ann

Situated just offshore from Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, Massachusetts and connected to the mainland at low tide by a sand bar (tombolo), Salt Island embodies a spectrum of significant values – scenic, ecological, historical, economic, and recreational - to the citizens of Cape Ann and beyond.

Scenic Significance

Salt Island is part of the natural maritime landscape for which Cape Ann has long been justly celebrated by world renowned artists such as Fitz Hugh Lane, Winslow Homer, T.S. Eliot, Charles Olsen, and many others. Tens of thousands of visitors to Good Harbor Beach enjoy its natural beauty at all seasons. In addition those residents of East Gloucester for whom Salt Island is a key natural element in their viewshed, will lose their wild scenic vista if the island is developed.

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Ecological Significance

Salt Island is representative of the archipelago of granitic wooded islands, of which there are more than 35 off the coast of Essex County. It is vegetated with a native plant community that provides food and shelter for resident, migratory and wintering wildlife communities, and its rocky intertidal and varied subtidal zones harbor an abundance of shellfish and finfish, which in turn are food sources for marine waterfowl, especially in winter. The island is part of the Essex County Coastal Bird Islands Important Bird Area (IBA), an internationally recognized bird conservation program protecting bird habitat in more than 200 countries worldwide.

Historical Significance

Salt Island stands as an iconic testament to the long, rich history of Gloucester. For over 3,000 years Algonquian-speaking Eastern Woodland Indians lived on Little Good Harbor River in first seasonally and later year-round settlements. 

The first written record of Salt Island is on a map that Samuel de Champlain drew when he visited the “Islands Cape” (Cape Ann) in 1606. In his account he referred to it as a “Little rocky islet, very high on the coast” (Les Voyages 1607). In his 1616 description of New England, Captain John Smith referred to opportunities to make salt as an encouragement to English settlement, and the making of salt on the island became a major enterprise in the development of the region. 

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Economic Significance

In addition to the historic salt industry described above, the waters and shores of Salt Island continue to provide habitat for shellfish and finfish, which continue to be significant elements of the local economy. In addition, it has been documented that the thousands of visitors to Good Harbor Beach cite the picturesque island vistas that form the beach’s horizon are major reasons that they rank the beach very highly and return frequently; these visitor are a significant component of Gloucester’s annual budget.

Recreational Significance

The fact that one can walk out to Salt Island via the sandspit (tombolo) that connects it to the mainland at low tide, provides a unique recreational option in addition to the usual beach activities such as swimming and surfing. There is a kind of mystique in the fact that one’s timing has to be right to gain access; there is no real trail system so exploring requires some bushwhacking; and reaching the rocky summit with its fine views back over the mainland and out to Thacher’s Island create a goal. In short, an adventure! that attracts explorers of all ages. The fact that a major ground cover on this and other North Shore islands is poison ivy ensures that the adventurers don’t destroy the habitat by trail blazing. (NB: Poison ivy is a native plant, the fruits of which are popular with frugivorous birds, and while you may consider it “invasive” in your back yard, it is not “Invasive” in the ecological sense.)   

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