The Essentials of Coastal Ecosystem Conservation
Mangroves and Seagrass: The Future of Blue Carbon Financing
What are Coastal Ecosystems?
Coastal ecosystems are an essential resource for marine life, and local coastal communities, who represent 37 percent of the global population in 2017. The coastal zone is an area of highly dynamic and productive ecosystems. Coastal ecosystems are areas where land and water join to create an environment with a distinct structure, diversity, and flow of energy. A typical coastal ecosystem consists of coral reefs, mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, and saltmarshes. These aquatic ecosystems have immense social, environmental, and economic value due to the range of ecosystem services they provide.
The shallow water habitats create an ideal environment where young ocean-going fish can nest, grow, and develop. These environments help to sustain many fishing communities that live in their vicinity, business sectors, and national economies.
However, coastal ecosystems are very sensitive to changes in the environment. Due to multiple and synergistic anthropogenic threats, coastal ecosystems are being lost at an unprecedented rate. There is great concern that some areas are now struggling to maintain their diversity due to human activity.
The Importance of Seagrass and Mangroves
Humans are dependent on ecosystem services (ES).
Ecosystem services are “the capacity of natural processes and components to provide goods and services that satisfy human needs, directly or indirectly” (De Groot, 1992).
Ecosystem services are divided into four broad categories
1. Regulating Services
Mangrove forests and seagrass are a natural coastal defence. Their roots trap and stabilize the sediment, which not only helps improve water clarity and quality but also reduces erosion and buffers coastlines against storm surges. Nearly 2.4 billion people live within 100 km of a coastline. Mangroves provide valuable protection for communities at risk from sea-level rises and severe weather events caused by climate change. Additionally, the carbon sequestration capacity of mangroves and seagrass is far greater than tropical forests; they are classified as “carbon sinks” (see graph). For example, seagrasses are known as the “lungs of the sea” because one square meter of seagrass can generate 10 litres of oxygen every day through photosynthesis.
2. Provisioning Services
Seagrass meadows are often called nursery habitats. They are a nesting ground for a variety of fish species and form the basis of the world’s primary fishing grounds, supplying 50% of the world’s fisheries. Moreover, 32% of commercial fish species utilise seagrass during one part of their lifecycle. Seagrass meadows support communities and livelihoods. They provide vital nutrition for close to 3 billion people, and 50% of animal protein to 400 million people in developing nations.
3. Cultural Services
Mangrove forests are often located near coral reefs and sandy beaches. This provides a rich environment for activities like sports fishing, kayaking, and bird watching tours. Sustainable tourism offers a stimulus to preserve existing mangrove areas, with the potential to generate income for local inhabitants.
4. Supporting Services
A variety of wildlife lives or breeds in the mangrove ecosystem, including various fish, crab and shrimp species, molluscs, and mammals like sea turtles. The trees are home to an array of nesting, breeding and migratory birds. When mangrove forests are cleared valuable habitat is lost, threatening the survival of numerous species.
The forests are also a potential source of undiscovered biological materials, such as antibacterial compounds and pest-resistant genes, which are also lost when coastal areas are cleared. In addition, seagrass meadows provide food and habitat for 1000s of species such as shellfish, seahorses, manatees, and sea turtles. Over 30 times more animals live within seagrass compared to adjacent sandy habitats.
In spite of their immense importance, seagrass and mangroves are vanishing at an alarming rate.
Since 1980, there has been a 35% decline in seagrass meadows. That equates to about 1.5% per year, or 2 football fields each hour.
Furthermore, current trends project a 30 to 40 percent loss of tidal marshes and seagrasses over the next 100 years, and a loss of nearly all unprotected mangroves. Moreover, it is estimated that 1.9 percent of mangroves are lost each year globally, resulting in 240 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions — equivalent to emissions from the use of 588 million barrels of oil or from 50.5 million passenger vehicles.
The primary drivers of the degradation of the coastal ecosystem are coastal development, destructive fishing, poor water quality, climate change, physical destruction, and pollution.
Is there a way to protect these ecosystems?
Trading and Financing Blue Carbon Credits
Blue carbon is the carbon stored in coastal and marine ecosystems. The wide implementation of a blue carbon-trading scheme in priority regions would provide a tangible solution to mitigate the current levels of deforestation and erosion. A blue carbon credit system would ensure a reallocation of incentives. Local communities would receive funds from coastal ecosystem restoration and re-forestation. This would benefit the community and the environment.
Mangroves and other coastal vegetated habitats provide significant benefits in the form of blue carbon storage and sequestration. Thus, the international community, numerous governments, communities, companies and civil society around the world are increasingly supporting their conservation as a climate change mitigation strategy. When a proven ecosystem restoration method also helps reduce poverty and build economic resilience, governments will often back them as a win-win solution.
Case Study: Kenya
The UN Environment Programme, the Kenya Forest Service, and the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute recently launched the Vanga Blue Forests Project on the Kenyan coast. This is a groundbreaking initiative to trade carbon credits from mangrove conservation and restoration. The sales of carbon credits are facilitated through voluntary carbon markets, verified by the Plan Vivo carbon-trading standard. The project will conserve and restore over 4,000 hectares of mangroves in Kwale County and support the livelihoods of over 8,000 people in fishing communities in the area through community development initiatives. The success of this project provides a model for other coastal regions around the world.