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The Importance of Mangrove Ecosystems

Mangrove forests are an integral part of global coastal ecosystems, covering over 53,190 square miles of coastline. Very few species of trees in the world can tolerate such high levels of salty, poorly oxygenated water. The 80 or so species of mangroves all regulate otherwise toxic levels of salt by constantly processing and excreting the mineral through their waxy leaves. Their roots, high and flexible, allow the tree to breathe and provide resistance against otherwise damaging tidal and river forces.

These properties allow the mangrove forests to act as an important link between the land and the sea, providing ecological benefits for both. Some of these benefits include:

Species habitat

Mangroves provide excellent and unique conditions for marine life, and well as habitats and feeding grounds for many species of reptile, amphibians, birds, mammals and insect. This unique mix of species contribute to a bountiful, nutrient rich ecosystem. Their ability to act as a natural shock absorber protects the area from tidal and violent flows allow endangered species to find the perfect shelter there.

Fish nursery

The open ocean can be a real threat to juvenile coral reef fish, many of whom without the protection of the mangrove, will not see adulthood. Thankfully, the many species find all the nutrients and environmental protection required to nurture their young. Their ability to act as a natural shock absorber protects the area from tidal and violent flows and allow endangered species to find the perfect shelter there. Juvenile shark species are a popular resident, as they use the forest for predatorial protection; known to house sharks up to 8 feet in length!

Blue carbon ecosystem

Mangroves are considered “Blue Carbon Ecosystems”. This ecosystem acts as a filtration system between land and water, purifying the water and surrounding land of toxic elements such as nitrogen and carbon. Mangroves have the ability to store vast amounts of carbon and regulate its release; this gradual slow release prevents carbon spikes, keeping the oceans cleaner and its inhabitants healthier.

Protects coastline

Besides animal protection, mangroves avoid land inundation as they balance the flow of water, keeping the integral structure of the surrounding land.

Sustainable construction material

Animals are not the only beneficiaries of the forests. Local communities, such as fishermen and farmers rely heavily on the materials gathered from the forest like water resistant wood and food to sustain human habitation.

What’s the problem?

They’re disappearing. Right now, mangroves are endangered, with human imposed deforestation as the culprit. Swamps are not attractive to tourists, they bring unwanted insects (mosquitoes), and more importantly are positioned perfectly for that idyllic ocean view. Beach front hotels, bars and entertainment facilities have now replaced these important ecosystems. Entire cities (e.g. Cancun and Miami) now sit where rich oceanic and forest life once were, with Myanmar displaying the fastest rate of deforestation (4%) due to “Shrimping”.

Of course, their disappearance will negatively affect all the benefits listed above. However the wider affect runs deeper for humankind. Without the natural filtration system mangroves provide, the nutrient imbalance in the ocean will cause other flora/fauna to increase beyond normal rates. A prime example of this would be sargassum, which has grown in size and quantity due to nutrient imbalance. In Xcalak, we can witness the effect of the Amazon’s mangroves deforestation by looking at our beaches!

Quintana Roo itself, being a relatively young state, has low rate of deforestation compared to other mangrove dense places. However, the worst is yet to come if the coastline is subjected to similar treatment as Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum as a result of tourism. Now that mangroves are classified as essential fish habitat by the government, maybe they’ll be left alone. In the meantime, marine conservation charities could help saving those irreplaceable habitat by adopting land within the mangrove forest, similar to what we can already do for the reef. Along with raising local awareness and education on the importance of the mangrove forests.

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