August 30, 2017

Water Views

Coastal Areas: The Unseen Value of Nature

Natural coastlines provide truly valuable services to us, at no cost. They harbor coral reefs, mangroves, wetlands and seagrass - natural assets that are at work each day to provide us with storm and flood defense, food provision, tourism income, and more.

These services form part of what we call Blue Growth - in total, the ocean represents an estimated $1.5 trillion in global value added, yearly. Economies globally depend on a healthy ocean — from large-scale fisheries to subsistence fishermen; from international luxury hotel chains to the 3 billion people dependent on seafood as their primary source of protein.

The understanding of the incredible value of the ocean is increasing, thanks notably to the dedication of scientists, and the development of technologies that allow us to gather, analyze and model vast amounts of data.

When it comes to coastal services, discoveries can be staggering. We have found that a healthy coral reef can reduce 97 percent of a wave's energy before it hits the shore, and just 100 meters of mangroves can reduce wave height by 66 percent.

As the impacts of climate change become clearer - storms are costing the global economy $300 billion a year, and 68,000 people are being displaced every single day - so is the need to preserve these natural ecosystems.

While Hurricane Sandy greatly damaged the eastern United States, coastal wetlands likely saved more than $625 million in flood damages across coastal communities in 12 states. And in the Philippines, mangroves are expected to avert more than US $1.6 billion in damages for 1-in-25 year events.

Beyond protection, coastal ecosystems also offer other benefits to communities that traditional infrastructure solutions simply can't - improved water quality, more fish and new ecotourism opportunities. In fact, there are more than 70 countries and territories across the world that have million dollar coral reefs — reefs that generate more than one million dollars per square kilometer.

Despite this potential, coasts globally are suffering – 67 percent of mangroves have been lost, at an ongoing rate of 1 percent loss each year - mostly due to human conversions such as coastal development, aquaculture and agriculture.

Sewage and inadequate wastewater management are also a significant contributing factor. Globally, we estimate that 96 percent of places that have both people and coral reefs have a sewage pollution problem - causing coral die-off and depriving local communities of the numerous benefits these reefs provide.

Along the New York and Connecticut shores, 90 percent of the seagrass is gone. Eelgrass - the main species of seagrass found in Long Island Sound - provides habitat for species, such as flounder, bay scallops, and American lobster, that are commercially important for the area. Seagrass meadows also improve water quality and clarity by absorbing nutrients, and reduce shoreline erosion by stabilizing sediments.

As we have seen in Long Island, nitrogen pollution from sewage and fertilizers can have devastating impacts - and not just on the fresh water bodies that have been highlighted recently in the news.

Harmful algae blooms fueled by excess nitrogen, often channeled into coastal waters from river mouths or through runoff, reduce the oxygen levels needed to sustain fish and shellfish - this has been found in several locations in New York State. Solutions to fresh water pollution which propose draining lakes and ponds into the ocean will likely cause further devastation.

Our team out in Long Island believes the resilience and viability of the area's coastal communities are linked to water quality and the integrity of coastal habitats. So, what can be done? Enhancing nature-based flood preparedness in our shoreline communities and removing polluting septic systems will allow for tidal and freshwater wetlands, wildlife habitat, and the natural functions of floodplains to be restored and provide the many benefits of which they are capable.

Globally, innovative scientific and financial models are crucial and creative partnerships can allow for win-win solutions (for example, developing insurance models for natural assets like coral reefs). Beyond coasts, these innovations are crucial to addressing the many areas affecting a sustainable Blue Growth agenda - e.g. new technologies for fisheries management, governance and protection systems for our high seas (can you believe 50 percent of our planet remains a no man's land?), and mapping and understanding the value of all ocean resources.

We live in a time in which we know more than ever about what the ocean does for us, combined with unprecedented technological and scientific developments. This gives me hope that human ingenuity, bolstered by stronger understanding of the value of our ocean and coasts, will uncover new solutions that create a better future for both the planet and people.

Maria Damanaki is the Global Managing Director for Oceans at The Nature Conservancy.

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