Mangroves in the Mist: Coastal Mangroves Forests Need Conservation, and Fast

By Madren, Carrie | American Forests, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Mangroves in the Mist: Coastal Mangroves Forests Need Conservation, and Fast


Madren, Carrie, American Forests


STRADDLING BOTHLAND AND sea, mangrove forests are biologically rich coast keepers, providing sanctuary for diverse species, nurseries for marine life, habitat for birds and protection for shorelines. Mangrove forests--wooded, tropical wetlands--buffer the transition from land to sea and offer ecological benefits to both. But over the past few decades, global mangrove forests have been shrinking faster than the scientific community realized.

Satellite images published last year offered the most comprehensive, detailed, global mangrove database to date, showing the total worldwide mangrove area more accurately than ever before: 53,190 square miles, about the size of Arkansas, in the year 2000. That was nearly 12 percent smaller than previously thought. Almost half the world's old-growth mangrove forests have been lost over the past 50 years, and we're continuing to lose mangroves at a rate of roughly one percent (about 578 square miles) per year.

More than a third of the world's mangroves are believed to have disappeared between 1980 and 2000, mostly due to the rise of industrial shrimp farming and coastal development, in China alone, the last 50 years have seen a 70 percent loss of mangrove forests. In the U.S., protected mangroves along Florida's coasts and the tip of Louisiana are faring better, with higher protections than mangroves in other countries.

Of the remaining mangroves, only about 6.9 percent are officially protected. This was confirmed by the satellite image study published in 2010, led by scientist Chandra Giri of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Earth Resources Observation and Science Center in South Dakota, whose team studied the images alongside maps of protected areas.

Pressures on mangrove forests come from all angles. On land, human destruction comes in the form of clearcutting for fish farms and filling in for development. From the sea, rising water levels and temperature due to climate change interrupt interrupt processes and expand ranges. To understand the impact that these changes are having on mangrove ecosystems and what their results could be, we first have to understand why these wetland forests are among the most valuable and sensitive ecosystems in the world.

PORTRAIT OF A MANGROVE GROVE

Around the world, mangrove species come in dozens of shapes and sizes, suited to grow in just as many habitats and tide levels. In Florida and the Caribbean, red mangroves form canopied canals over spindly prop roots. In Australia, tiny knee-high mangrove bushes thrive in arid deserts. While the Western Hemisphere has only eight species, some 60 species grow in the Indo-Pacific region. Asia has the lions share with 42 percent of the world's mangroves, but sizable percentages also grow in Africa, North and Central America, Oceania and South America.

Like other wetlands, people have historically despised mangrove wetlands because of the smell, the mosquitoes and the flies, explains Candy Feller, ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland. Feller's affinity for the unusual ecosystems began in the 1970s when, sent to Belize as a scientific illustrator, she fell in love with mangroves. "I've always really loved swamps: that wet, really spooky world," she says.

Despite some of their less appealing qualities, swampy mangrove stands provide valuable ecosystem services. Mangrove prop roots create rich, colorful nurseries for fish and marine life; above, branches offer habitat for birds and other wildlife. Like other types of wetlands, mangroves also slow runoff coming from the land. According to Feller, they act as a sieve for the sediments and as a scrubber for the nutrients that can destroy coral and sea grass beds.

Mangroves can also act as a buffer from intense storms by absorbing some of the wave energy of tsunamis, hurricanes and storm surges. Many realized the importance of mangroves after the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami, which devastated coasted communities, killing more than 225,000 and displacing close to a million people. …

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