Threats to coastal and marine ecosystems and the need for conservation at scale – IUCN

How would you describe the state of coastal and marine ecosystems today?

I think that we’re seeing a lot of renewed motivation to focus on coastal and marine conservation and restoration due to recent reports, most notably the IPCC ocean and cryosphere report released in 2019 that shows the climate change impacts on these ecosystems and how they continue to decline. Coastal development continues to be on the rise, populations are still moving towards the coast, and overfishing is still occurring. On top of that, when you add issues related to pollution, in particular agricultural run-off and plastic pollution, and climate change impacts, it’s not looking very good.


We’re still seeing a decline in overall health and abundance of the ocean and we’re still losing coastal ecosystems – mangroves, saltmarshes, and seagrasses – at a rate that rivals coral reefs and rainforests. When you talk to someone in the street, they all know that corals are dying and that the Amazon is in trouble, but they don’t understand that other coastal ecosystems are in just as bad of a situation. They have just as many threats and overall losses.


How is climate change affecting the health of coastal ecosystems? How is this, in turn, affecting coastal communities?

Climate change is creating severe weather threats, causing storms to be more intense and frequent. Coastal ecosystems are a community’s first level of defence, by reducing wave energy, absorbing floodwaters, and preventing shoreline erosion, so having healthy and intact coastal ecosystems can protect and increase the resilience of coastal communities. This benefit though is threatened by sea level rise and ‘coastal squeeze’. Coastal squeeze occurs where you have high population density along the coast, and as seas rise, coastal ecosystems that would otherwise retreat landward and keep pace with sea-level rise are moving up against communities, cities, or coastal developments and they have nowhere to go. These ecosystems are basically drowning in the ocean.


Coastal ecosystems also offer climate mitigation strategies because they have such a high carbon value. The more we conserve and restore them the better for climate change mitigation. Coastal ecosystems provide a potential solution and a buffer but they are suffering some of the most devastating impacts.


What would you say are some of the greatest challenges to marine and coastal conservation, and what is Conservation International doing to address these challenges?

I think one of the challenges is just the scale of the problem – the ocean is 70% of our planet so there’s probably no bigger problem that we have to solve. It’s important to come up with comprehensive strategies that add value at both a local level to protect communities that are the most threatened, and also at an international level with comprehensive policies. How do we make sure that oceans and coasts are adequately represented within larger international treaties and conventions so they receive the recognition, support and attention that they deserve? When it comes to the ocean, one challenge is that it’s all under water, for lack of a better word, so many issues are hidden.


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