As we continue to search for ways to improve livelihoods and human well-being, we often overlook an important economic resource: natural, healthy ecosystems. The actions of humans on land and at sea can affect some of the key services we rely on natural ecosystems to provide.
As scientists with Conservation International, we recently collaborated with other scientists from around the world to begin to examine flows between different ecosystem services and describe how human actions affect these services. Our contributions appear in the recent report, “Framing the Flow,” produced by the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
Tropical coastal ocean ecosystems–seagrasses, mangroves, and coral reefs–provide a number of services to coastal populations. Mangroves and coral reefs buffer coastal populations and infrastructure from storms and tsunamis. Healthy mangroves can also provide both a sustainable source of small-scale fuelwood and natural nurseries for fish and for subsistence fishing purposes in impoverished coastal communities. In fact, many fisheries need all three ecosystems for their survival. Beautiful, diverse coral reefs are also a major source of tourism revenue in tropical regions around the world.
All of these ecosystems are highly dependent on each other and the adjacent land in a tight feedback loop, so damage to one affects the others. High levels of deforestation or coastal development cause sedimentation, and changes to the natural flow of freshwater can lead to coral reef loss. Without the storm protection from coral reefs and mangroves, the hotels and housing built on the coast are more vulnerable to waves and erosion. If sediment, nutrients, or overfishing cause too much damage to coral reefs, valuable tourism money may be spent elsewhere.
As we show in “Framing the Flow,” healthy coastal ecosystems will require looking not only at one species, or even one ecosystem. Scientists and managers need to examine the complex interaction between these ecosystems. We need to manage both our land and our ocean resources, for their health and ours.
Elizabeth Selig is a Biodiversity Analyst. Nalini Rao is a Senior Research Fellow.