Kira Lomas investigates the protective and robust nature of mangrove forests aiding in preserving coastlines.
Photo by Constant Loubier
Situated between land and sea and found primarily in subtropical / tropical countries, mangrove forests are one of the most important, richest and biodiverse wetland ecosystems on the planet.
Providing a range of significant socio-economic benefits to coastal communities and shoreline marine life, mangroves play a vital role in maintaining the environmental equilibrium. However, as a result of damaging coastal development practices as well as other factors, mangrove swamps are becoming increasingly threatened and overlooked by humans, consequently leading to their decline.
Despite only covering a small percentage of land and sea, representing less than 1% of tropical forests, mangroves are not to be underestimated in terms of their resilience in protecting against coastal hazards. Formed of intricate clusters of trees and shrubs, these rare specimens are able to withstand severe weather conditions, making them one of the most adaptable wetland environments in the world. As a result of their long-term sustainability, there is an increasing need to preserve and promote the coastal services of mangroves.
Mangroves as Coastal Mechanisms
Typically identified by their tightly-packed prop roots submerged in but simultaneously growing above the water line, mangroves have a distinctive structure that enables them to thrive in highly concentrated salt water conditions. The rigidness of their roots, combined with an efficient filtration system that ensures the extraction of around 90% of the salt found in the surrounding seawater, means they are able to control the amount of excess sediment accumulating on the shore. These remarkable functions create a physical barrier against the adverse effects of storm surges, tsunamis and erosion, as well ensuring survival in water that is 100 times more saline than most other plants can tolerate.
Not only do mangroves provide regulatory services, they also act as a refuge for small fish populations, shielding them from predators until they are able to migrate further out to sea. With more than 300,000 fish species congregating within the dense harbour of roots, marine life is heavily reliant on the high food availability, cooler water and higher oxygen content that mangroves provide. With this in mind, it is evident that conserving mangroves is critical for sustaining and replenishing the abundance of fish stock inhabiting the ocean.
Along with protecting against sedimentation and adapting to rising sea levels, mangroves have been widely recognised as sequestering massive amounts of blue carbon - organic matter specific to coastal and marine ecosystems. These forms of coastal vegetation reduce carbon emissions through the slow decomposition rate of the waterlogged soil, contributing to mangroves being able to store up to four times more carbon than other tropical forests. If left undisturbed, these habitats have enormous potential to combat climate change, stabilise coastlines and facilitate fish breeding.
Threats to Mangroves
Despite providing a number of ecological and economic benefits, mangroves are undergoing a decline due to exploitation, degradation and lack of management.
Shrimp farming for aquaculture is one of the biggest issues these habitats face today. Proponents of this trade build artificial lakes to replace wetlands, using pollutants such as chemicals and antibiotics to sustain the shrimps’ health - avaricious processes that have destructive and contaminating effects on mangrove forests.
Coastal development is another huge-scale human activity affecting the maintenance of mangrove forests. The ever-increasing demand for beach lifestyles that attract tourists and create infrastructure such as hotels and marinas means that mangroves suffer the ill effects of the industrial pollutants that accompany this industry.
Mangroves are also being degraded and lost due to deforestation at an alarming rate, disappearing at a global loss rate of 1-2% per year. Desired for their ability to produce dense, valuable wood that is resistant to decay and the impact of insects, mangroves are being exploited and used in non-sustainable ways for timber and charcoal production.
With mangroves experiencing numerous threats, restoration projects only form part of the solution to ensuring the survival of this species. More effort needs to be directed into protecting and managing these life abundant plants in order to preserve the beauty of our shores.
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