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President's Letter: On the edge of land and sea

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“Caught...between forests and oceans is an ecosystem that has been largely forgotten: mangroves.”

Carter Roberts
President & CEO, WWF

When I first started working in conservation, the funding focus was on forests. They were tangible, familiar ecological systems to which we could attach a clear price for discrete efforts, and there was a track record of accomplishment, particularly in buying land to preserve.

But over the years, it has become clearer the degree to which we depend upon oceans, too. And while they don’t attract the majority of conservation dollars, oceans are now the hottest area for new funds and partnerships. Caught in this tension between forests and oceans is an ecosystem that has been largely forgotten: mangroves.

There are about 70 species of mangroves found along tropical and subtropical coastlines, with a heavy presence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Intolerant of cold but tolerant of salt, mangroves thrive in the nutrient-poor, highly stressed intertidal zone of coastlines—the area between the land and sea. Mangroves also boast uniquely evolved  filtration systems that can filter out up to 97% of salt, a necessary feature because daily changing tides bring fluctuating levels of salinity.

But perhaps the most iconic feature of mangroves, though, is their complex root systems. They extend above and below the waterline in great looping nests, creating an elaborate structure that provides stability and prevents coastal erosion. The roots also provide habitat and nurseries for fish, oysters, and other organisms.

Mangrove forests stand among the most productive ecosystems on Earth. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the ecosystem services they provide—water filtration, carbon storage, preventing coastal erosion and storm surges during hurricanes, and more—are worth up to $57,000 per hectare annually to the developing countries that have mangrove forests. But despite the incredible value that these ecosystems provide, mangrove forests are being destroyed and degraded at a steady rate.

Because they can grow in the most sought-after coastal locations, they are often the first destroyed to make room for farming. Palm oil and rice were responsible for 38% of mangrove loss from 2000 to 2012 in Southeast Asia, a region rich with mangrove habitat. When coastal populations grow and associated tourism increases, mangroves are cleared to make way for infrastructure, businesses, hotels, and homes. All of this destruction releases into the atmosphere copious amounts of carbon—up to 0.45 billion metric tons per year—previously held captive in mangrove root systems.

And so in an effort to shine a light on this unsung hero of the environment, WWF, along with our colleague organizations, has become hyper-focused on protecting mangrove forests.

A significant part of this work is the Global Mangrove Alliance, which we’re organizing with Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, Wetlands International, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Alliance’s goal is to slow the destruction of mangroves in order to increase their area of global habitat 20% by the year 2030. This mission could not be more urgent—67% of the world’s mangroves have been lost or degraded already, and an additional 1% are lost each year. If current trends continue, the remaining unprotected mangroves could be gone within the next 100 years.

I am proud of this partnership for bringing attention to the issue of mangrove conservation and restoration, a niche system oft forgotten in the larger decisions around forests and oceans. But more than anything, I’m proud of how we’ve locked arms with key partners and come together to address something that the world has forgotten. It’s an important reminder of why we must do this in other realms, too, if we are to continue achieving conservation success at the scale our planet demands.

Carter Roberts

President and CEO

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World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

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