Ecological underdogs vital to defense of coastlines

07/26/2017 10:22 am ET
Despite their important roles in defending coastlines, storing carbon and acting as nurseries for fish and shellfish, mangrov
© Michel Roggo / WWF
Despite their important roles in defending coastlines, storing carbon and acting as nurseries for fish and shellfish, mangroves are being destroyed at an alarming rate.

It’s said that every dog has its day. And when it comes to forests, the “dogged” mangroves deserve some serious attention.

Mangroves are undervalued and underappreciated components of Mother Nature’s coastal infrastructure, but they deserve respect for all that they do for people. They are living seawalls, with the ability to grow up in elevation as sea levels rise and to trap sediments and nutrients flowing from upland areas. They shelter coastal communities from violent storms and wave surges. They also serve as nursery grounds for numerous species of fish and shellfish that coastal communities depend on, and they capture and store carbon more efficiently than even terrestrial forests.

For all these incredible services that mangroves provide, today we celebrate “International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystems” as proclaimed by the United Nations.

But despite their wide-ranging benefits and value, mangroves are being destroyed at an alarming rate. In fact, mangroves are disappearing three to five times faster than the rate of overall global forest losses.

Why the world’s mangroves disappear

Unsustainable coastal development plays a big role in mangrove loss as these forests compete with people for proximity and access to the sea. Another main driver of loss is aquaculture, known as fish farming, primarily through the conversion of mangrove forests into bare lots for shrimp farms. Climate change is also harming mangroves and accelerating loss through changes in ocean temperature, acidification and sea level rise.

But perhaps the underlying reason we’ve lost so many of these trees is that mangroves simply don’t get the respect they deserve. There is no real recognition for all the values the provide, even though no engineer in the world could design a coastal buffer that does so much and costs so little.

Why do mangroves deserve more respect?

Mangroves are natural lifesavers. They protect people against increasingly more extreme and unpredictable weather, and intact coastal habitats such as mangroves, coral reefs and salt marshes are more effective in protecting coasts from storms than man-made seawalls.

Investment to conserve natural habitats makes sense for coastal developers as well, as it is around 30 times cheaper than building seawalls. And restoring mangroves can be two to five times cheaper than building a concrete breakwater and can provide more effective protection.

Mangroves also sequester and store up to five times more carbon than the equivalent area of mature tropical forest and they can store carbon for hundreds to thousands of years if left undisturbed. And cutting them down has an equally outsized negative impact. Mangroves make up just two percent of tropical forest cover but contribute 19 percent of the emissions coming from the degradation of tropical forests.

These forests also provide food for millions of people by serving as nurseries for many of the world’s fish populations. In fact, it is estimated that “almost 80 percent of global fish catches are directly or indirectly dependent on mangroves.”

Rallying the world behind protecting and restoring mangroves

If you have read this far, you are probably wondering whether we can reverse these declines and bring back what we’ve lost. In fact, we can. It’s not too late.

This is why we have formed the Global Mangrove Alliance, a new effort to mobilize the world to stop mangrove deforestation and to undertake a massive restoration effort. The goal of the Alliance is to expand overall extent of mangrove forests 20 percent by 2030. WWF, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Wetlands International have joined together to take up this challenge. And that list is growing.

The Global Mangrove Alliance was born of the belief that a renewed effort is needed across multiple sectors and geographies to give mangroves their due, and to massively scale and accelerate conservation and restoration of mangrove ecosystems. The know-how exists; it is the will and interest to act that needs bolstering. The Paris agreement and its focus on developing country-by-country plans to reduce carbon emissions is a new moment that will allow us to both accelerate existing work to protect and restore mangroves while generating and funneling significant new global investment.

If we can generate enough momentum to accomplish these ambitious aims, we can improve the well-being of tens of millions of people and revitalize critical coastal ecosystems.

Our five organizations are just the starting point. The Global Mangrove Alliance seeks to galvanize action amongst governments, businesses, NGOs, the scientific community, finance and insurance sectors and, most importantly, the affected communities. Change is already happening, but we can make it come much faster if we work together.

In the short term, we can all do more to raise the profile of these dogged defenders of the tropical coastline. Begin today by taking a moment to appreciate all that mangroves provide for this planet.

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