Protecting Coastal Wetlands
with Emily Owen of The Pew Charitable Trusts
Coastal wetlands host some of the richest biodiversity on the planet, yet are among the most threatened ecosystems in the world.
Emily Owen, Manager of the Protecting Coastal Wetlands and Coral Reefs Program at The Pew Charitable Trusts, joins host Tetiana Anderson to explain the importance of coastal habitats — and an opportunity to protect and restore them.
November 30, 2021
Anderson: Home to some of the richest biodiversity on the planet, coastal habitats sustain life in all its forms. Salt marshes, sea grasses, and mangrove forests -- they're beautiful to look at, full of natural resources, and they function as natural barriers to shorelines. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Coastal habitats remain some of the most endangered ecosystems in the world, yet they're key to protect our coastlines and coastal communities against the effects of climate change. Emily Owen joins me. She is manager of protecting coastal wetlands and coral reefs program at the Pew Charitable Trusts. Emily, thanks for being here.
Owen: Hi, Tetiana. Thanks for having me.
Anderson: So, what's been going on over the past 50 years that really has endangered these wetlands so dramatically?
Owen: So, coastal wetlands -- which are mangroves, sea grasses, and salt marsh, as you mentioned -- you know, they're really some outstanding ecosystems, but they are truly threatened. We've actually lost about 50% of the world's mangroves in the past 50 years and at least a third of the sea grass beds. And these losses, the degradation or the disappearance of these ecosystems, is really due to harmful human activities. We see increasing coastal development. We see poor land use practices, poor fishing practices, and pollution, and those are things that are really threatening the existence of these coastal wetlands.
Anderson: So I know you say that obviously not enough attention has been paid to protecting these wetlands, right? But explain the function -- what kinds of things live and grow there? How do those things serve as such an important buffer?
Owen: So, these coastal wetlands are home to amazing amounts of biodiversity. You have manatees, you have sea turtles, sharks, and even about 20% of commercial fisheries depend on coastal habitats at one point or another during their life cycles. So, you've got these fantastic biodiversity benefits, and coastal wetlands are also an important source of ecosystem services for local communities. They provide food security, water filtration, and also generate tourism dollars to help support local livelihoods. And on top of all of that, you mentioned how they're important for protecting shorelines. And coastal wetlands, they are -- they're our first line of natural defenses against severe weather events. And so really, they help stabilize shorelines, they protect coastlines against damaging waves, and they also absorb excess flood water. So, salt marsh can actually absorb 1.5 million gallons of flood water, which is about 2 1/4 Olympic-size swimming pools per acre.
Anderson: And sort of to that point, I know that here in the United States, these wetlands provide about $23 billion in storm damage protection. It's a pretty staggering amount. What's the danger of doing nothing? I mean, what does that mean for folks who live in Florida or on the eastern shore, for example?
Owen: So, we need healthy and intact coastal wetlands. They do, they provide this natural barrier for those frontline communities. We've seen how communities in the Caribbean, for example, those that have coastal wetlands like mangroves sheltering them, their economies bounce back faster and bounce back better following hurricanes than communities that don't have mangrove forests. So they provide this protection, this line of protection that without it, communities would be much harder hit. They also provide a really interesting other benefit when we're talking about climate change, which is carbon storage. And coastal communities, coastal wetlands actually store carbon at a highly efficient rate. So, when we lose coastal wetlands, we're not only losing that shoreline protection, but the carbon that's been stored beneath those complex root systems for decades or centuries, it's released back into the atmosphere, and that's really problematic.
Anderson: All this obviously begs the question of what can be done to preserve these coastal wetlands, and what's the answer? I mean, is this about legislation, is this about nations coming together, is this about what we can do on an individual level, or a combination?
Owen: Well, I think it's a combination of all of those things, but particularly right now, countries have an opportunity to protect and restore coastal wetlands as part of their national climate plans under the Paris Agreement. And we have actually seen countries like Belize, Seychelles, and Costa Rica that are setting ambitious targets in these plans to protect, restore, and account for coastal wetlands in their countries. And this is really exciting to see, and we hope that countries are going to follow suit because of the important benefits not only to mitigate climate change and protect shorelines, but also for biodiversity and local livelihoods. There are just... It's an important time for countries to act and protect these valuable ecosystems.
Anderson: And, Emily, if people want to find out more about the work that you're doing, what website can I go to?
Owen: Well, they can go to www.pewtrusts.org.
Anderson: Emily Owen from the Pew Charitable Trusts, thank you so much for being here.
Owen: Thank you, Tetiana.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.