It Comes Down to the Coasts

By Weber, Peter | World Watch, March-April 1994 | Go to article overview

It Comes Down to the Coasts


Weber, Peter, World Watch


ALONG THE SEAMS OF THE EARTH WHERE LAND MEETS SEA, BIOLOGICAL PRODUCTIVITY IS MUCH HIGHER THAN FOR THE REST OF THE PLANET'S SURFACE. IF THE COASTS ARE TO CONTINUE SERVING THEIR ESSENTIAL ECOLOGICAL AND ECONOMIC FUNCTIONS, WE WILL HAVE TO BEGIN ALTERING OUR PATTERNS OF HUMAN SETTLEMENT AND DEVELOPMENT.

What is a view of the ocean worth? The price of a night at an expensive hotel, or the purchase of a beachfront bungalow? Enduring a biting winter wind, or a beach-bound traffic jam on a sultry day in August? For many, the answer is: whatever it takes. Every year, half of the world's vacationers head for the sea. But for many more people, being close to the shore is worth something more than an annual pilgrimage. It is worth the cost of leaving better-paying jobs, or ancestral ties, or friends--and moving their homes to the coast. Fully half the world's people live within 50 miles or so of saltwater. And their ranks are growing. In 30 years, the same number of people as are now on earth--some 5.5 billion--are expected to live in the coastal zone.

What is the attraction? The meeting of land and sea works a kind of magic that is more powerful than that of just scenic beauty. The soil on the coastal plain, laid down when the land was covered by the ocean, and subsequently replenished by sediments washed down from the mountains, tends to be particularly fertile. About 2 percent of the world's agricultural land, including some of its most intensively and productively cultivated land, was actually taken from the sea by people.

Offshore, the same nutrients promote the growth of aquatic plants, which in turn feed fish that now provide humankind's largest single source of animal protein--larger, even, than beef or chicken. The world's primary fishing grounds are in these fertile coastal waters, from which 90 percent of the marine catch is taken (see map on pages 24-25). Farming and fishing are major coastal industries that employ hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Coastal dwellers can also make a good living from international trade, 80 percent of which is carried by ship. That's one reason why nine of the world's 10 largest cities and 33 of the top 50 are near the coasts. And of course there are the vacationers bringing their portion of the $1.9 trillion annually spent on tourism worldwide. Although there are no estimates for coastal tourism alone, the Madrid-based World Tourism Organization estimates that tourism accounts for nearly one-tenth of the global economic output and is one of the fastest growing industries. The attraction of the coasts is as much economic as aesthetic. It's not surprising, then, that the narrow ribbons of land and water that outline the world's continents and islands are widely used as development zones. The phenomenon is nowhere more vividly illustrated than in The Netherlands, whose crowded populace lives with the sea literally in its back yard. In fact, one-third of The Netherlands is land that used to be under the North Sea or its tributaries; because coastal land is so valuable to the Dutch, they have been diking and draining it continuously for over a thousand years. Their sea-hugging cities are now thriving centers of commerce and culture, and their farms are some of the most productive in the world.

All this activity may churn out money, but it is also churning up the coasts--as the Dutch have become acutely aware in recent decades. Draining wetlands has reduced the natural habitat for wildlife and has driven the Dutch national symbol, the stork, from the country (see cover story in the January/February World Watch).

But the problem is more than just a few endangered species. By choosing to concentrate its swelling population along the coasts, humanity is locating the ecological damage of its activities precisely where the world's most productive ecosystems are concentrated. The coastal zone, extending from the beginning of the coastal plain to the end of the continental shelf, accounts for only 8 percent of the world's surface area, but hosts 26 percent of the earth's primary (plant) productivity, the world's major spawning and nursery grounds, and one of the earth's most diverse ecosystems, the coral reefs. …

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