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October 22, 2021 5 min read
Many people dismiss mangrove forests as merely tropical, swampy wastelands. However, we’ve since come to know that they’re anything but that. The value of mangroves is often well understood by local communities, yet their global significance is widely overlooked. Despite mangrove forests being critical ecosystems, both for biodiversity and for humanity, their losses have been considerable, and so it is imperative that we do what we can to protect them.
Mangrove forests have in fact held a place in my heart ever since visiting the Hong Kong Wetland Park as a child. I remember being amazed by the intertwined roots of the mangroves, and the vibrant world of the mudskippers and crabs that lived both under and above the surface. Yet, as I ventured through the beautiful ecosystem, I learned that mangrove populations were depleting, which made the experience bittersweet.
In addition to their many crucial benefits, it’s the other-worldly tranquility of the mangroves that initially drew me in, and still draws me to them to this day. I’m certainly not the only one who finds these forests both valuable and stunning, as there are many mangrove enthusiasts across the world who know all there is to know about mangroves. I recently caught up with mangrove expert and ecologist Ebuka Nwobi, a post-doctorate research assistant in the school of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh. He talked me through the major benefits of mangroves, and the importance of the protection and restoration of mangrove forests.
Having grown up in the coastal state of Lagos, Nigeria, Ebuka childhood was spent around beaches, swamps, and coastal vegetation. Yet, it wasn’t until he was studying his undergraduate degree in Marine Biology that he found out the coastal vegetation where he lived were mangroves.
Later, while completing his master’s degree in Edinburgh, Ebuka tells me how came across an article on how carbon is stored in mangroves, which prompted him to learn more about the importance of mangroves to climate change mitigation and the livelihood of coastal communities. Ebuka tells me, “This new found knowledge on the importance of mangroves spurred me to study mangroves forests in Nigeria, the fifth largest mangrove ecosystem in the world.”
“Mangroves are important because of the services they provide to both nature and people. For example, mangroves are nursery grounds for many fisheries, which in turn provides fish to the communities living in and around the coasts.” Additionally, going back to the important trait that initially sparked Ebuka’s interest in mangroves, the vegetation stores a vast quantity of carbon, which is preserved for many years. Mangroves are five times more efficient at storing carbon than tropical upland forests, even when compared to one of the most productive ecosystems on our planet. Therefore, if mangrove deforestation and degradation continues, the lack of the services they currently provide could have a devastating impact on local communities as well as the wider environment in years to come. Ebuka tells me that he believes it is imperative that we find out how to sustainably utilise mangroves.
I couldn’t agree more and as well as finding out how to sustainably utilise mangroves, it’s vital that the importance of mangroves is widely known across the world. A couple more reasons why I believe mangroves are such an outstanding ecosystem that deserves to be saved:
Mangroves live between both land and sea, and can actually reduce flooding and act as natural defences from wind and waves. They also stabilise shorelines, preventing erosion and protecting the land and people who live there from waves and storms. It is estimated that mangroves prevent an incredible $65 billion in property damages to approximately 15 million people a year. These incredible tropical trees thrive in extremely harsh conditions. Mangrove soils are oxygen-poor, permanently waterlogged, and their salinity levels are constantly changing – they are sometimes dry, sometimes submerged. I personally find it pretty remarkable that they not only survive in such conditions, but also produce benefits to both nature and humans.
Mangroves are also home to marvellous creatures. The productivity and structure of mangroves means that they are able to support rich fauna, ranging from tigers to seahorses. Approximately 80% of small-scale fishers rely on mangroves, and there are over 4.1 million mangrove fishers globally. They serve as vast nurseries and habitats for fish, shellfish, crustaceans, and wildlife.
Despite the seemingly endless benefits of mangroves, we have lost a scarily large portion of them. The leading cause of loss of mangrove areas has been the production of commodities. They’ve been chopped down for firewood, cleared to make way for shrimp farms, and ever-spreading urban and leisure coastal developments. Many have also withered away due to depleted flows of fresh water or pollution, and the conversion of mangroves to urbanisation is another leading cause of mangrove loss.
Understand the importance of mangroves and what is driving their loss.Whilst this blog post covers the major benefits of mangroves and their leading threats, there is plenty more information out there. You can take a look at this short video to learn more about mangrove ecosystems.
Make sustainable choices. Reduce consumption in general, choose foods that are sustainably sourced, and say no to single-use plastic. See examples of what you can do through the UN Environment Program (UNEP) Clean Seas Campaign.
Learn how restoration works. It is important to understand the causes of mangrove forest disappearance or degradation before planting new mangroves. Learn more using UNEP’s Guidelines on Mangrove Ecosystem Restoration.
Be an advocate and an activist.Everyone can begin to act today, no matter who you are or where you are in the world. If you’re unsure about where to begin, why not play this game.
Make some noise. Talk to your friends and family about the importance of mangroves, and share information and images that inspire you. Examples of restoration pledges from various countries can be found here.
Fortunately, in recent years, there have been many sustainable mangrove projects in action. Whilst losses have been considerable, it is important to note that the rates have been declining thanks to ever-greater efforts being made to protect what remains. In 2018, the Global Mangrove Alliance (GMA) was established, and the partnership now includes over 25 organisations who share the aim of scaling up the recovery of mangrove forests. In fact, over the last 20 years, mangrove forests have shifted from being one of the fastest declining ecosystems to being one of the best protected. However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that every effort still needs to be made to protect all remaining mangroves to enhance recovery and restore lost forests.
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