Let’s get to the “root” of our love for mangroves and understand why these forests need our protection
Mangroves are tough, scrubby trees and shrubs that are supported by a tangle of dense prop roots. They look like they’re ready to step out of the ground and start walking around, don’t they? But it’s this unique root system that allows them to thrive in brackish and saltwater environments along the coast.
You can only find mangroves in tropical and subtropical estuaries. And while they cover only 0.1% of Earth’s landmass, they’re one of the planet’s most productive ecosystems...and one of the most threatened. Ocean plastic, development projects, exploitation, and sea level rise are just some of the threats facing mangroves.
That’s because some people look at a mangrove forest and see nothing but a stinky, muddy mass of impenetrable swamp. In the last 50 or so years, we’ve lost about half of the world’s mangrove forests. And, like so many things in life, we’re only realizing how valuable they truly are now that they’re disappearing.
So what makes mangroves so special, anyway?
1. Mangroves are the nurseries of the sea
Like any parent, ocean animals want to have their babies and raise them in a place where they’ll be safe. Mangroves’ dense root systems shelter baby sea animals from predators and strong currents. They live here until they are big and strong enough to swim out to the reef or open ocean where they’ll live as adults.
A variety of brightly colored reef fish lay their eggs among mangrove roots. Barnacles, oysters, mussels, crabs, and small fish live on or among them. Newborn sharks take shelter and hunt here. Seabirds roost in the canopy where they build nests and care for their young. Some marine mammals give birth and raise their young here. A few, like the manatee, are permanent residents.
2. Mangroves are also home to many endangered land animals
It’s not just sea life that relies on mangroves for survival. They’re also home to many endangered land species, including the Bengal tiger, pygmy three-toed sloth, proboscis monkey, smooth-coated otter, false water rat, and western red colobus monkey.
3. Mangroves keep coastal communities safe
Sediment flowing downriver and off land is trapped in their roots (along with anything in the water, like plastic debris). As this sediment builds up among the roots, mangrove forests become a natural breakwater. They stabilize entire coastlines and prevent erosion caused by tides and storms.
It’s estimated that the presence of mangroves reduces wave heights by as much as 50 percent. Coastal damage caused by large storms like hurricanes and typhoons are more severe in areas where mangroves have been cleared.
Mangroves protect our homes, property, and infrastructure from the devastating effects of tidal surges and storms. Yet we cut them down to build communities that are more vulnerable without their protection. Ironic, no?
4. Mangroves protect other critical marine ecosystems, too
Not only do mangroves protect our coastal communities, they also protect other critical marine ecosystems. Coral reefs and seagrass beds thrive because mangroves are there to stop the flow of sediment that would otherwise smother them. Coral reefs and seagrass beds are also protective barriers against waves, currents, and storms.
5. Mangroves keep the planet inhabitable
Mangroves are crucial when it comes to regulating the climate and counteracting the effects of global warming. We call them carbon sinks because the CO2 they breathe in is stored in their wood, roots, and the surrounding soil for hundreds or even thousands of years. They can sequester up to 10X more carbon than any land-based forests. And thanks to their saline-rich soil, they don’t emit nearly as much methane. Just one hectare of mangrove forest offsets 726 tonnes of coal emissions.
6. Mangroves are a source of global food security
Mangroves support local fisheries and provide food security for many coastal communities. Up to 50% of local fish catches are dependent on mangrove forests in some way. They’re also the ideal place for aquaculture, a growing industry where fish are “farmed” for food. Many other foods and product ingredients are grown or harvested in mangrove forests, including salt, fruit, honey, and algae.
7. Mangroves support people’s livelihoods
In fact, around 200 million people depend on mangroves for food and their livelihoods. Their wood is resistant to both rot and insects, which makes it an ideal source of fuel and construction material for coastal and indigenous communities.
Mangroves also support a vibrant tourism industry because of the wildlife and sandy beaches they support. From snorkeling to birdwatching, touring mangrove forests is a growing industry that employs a significant number of locals and relies on an intact mangrove ecosystem.
It’s estimated that a mangrove ecosystem is worth $33K to $57K per hectare, per year, in the developing economies of nations where mangroves live. Much less tangible but no less valuable, mangroves are also a wellspring of aesthetic beauty, culture, spirituality, and recreation in coastal communities around the world.
Despite all these benefits, mangrove loss is a serious threat
While mangrove forests provide all of this incredible value, we’re losing them faster than any other type of forest. We’ve already lost about half of the world’s mangrove coverage in just the last 50 years. They continue to be destroyed and degraded at a rate of 1% each year.
If we don’t reverse mangrove loss in the next 40 years, any mangroves that aren’t currently protected will be lost by 2040. The entire species could functionally disappear by 2100 if we don’t take action to protect and restore mangroves now. And the world would be a very different place without them.
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