Protecting and sustaining human life: Why healthy coastal ecosystems are so important

13 August 2014 | News story

The recent focus on coastal fisheries has raised the question of why coastal ecosystems are so important. The simple answer is that healthy coastal ecosystems are the lifeblood of Pacific Island communities, providing food, income and physical protection.

The inaugural Pacific Bêche-de-mer and the Future of Coastal Fisheries Meeting held last week in Nadi, Fiji, concluded with Ministers calling for action on coastal fisheries. As part of this, the Ministers recognized the over-exploited state of coastal fisheries and the need for improved management.

Their desire for sustainable management of the coastal fisheries reflects the importance of the coastal ecosystems – including mangrove forests, seagrass beds, coral reefs and other nearshore marine areas, and all the species that these habitats support.

Healthy coastal ecosystems are critical for food security. Finfish and crustaceans from coastal areas are relied upon by the people of the Pacific Islands region as a key component of their dietary intake, as it is often the major source of protein.

Many people’s livelihoods are intrinsically tied in with food production. Coastal communities catch or collect fish and crustaceans from mangrove and nearshore areas, and then sell them to other communities and community members without ready access to these areas. In addition, commercial fishing operations within nearshore coastal areas provide employment and royalties to communities. Tourism to coastal areas is also economically important, with tourists visiting the white sandy beaches and coral reefs across the Pacific Islands, providing employment for local people. These income-generating activities are relied upon by communities.

It is important that the subsistence and commercial activities are undertaken at sustainable rates, as coastal areas are havens of biodiversity. Fish, turtles, sea snakes, sharks, dolphins, crustaceans, invertebrates, seagrasses and mangroves are just some of the important biological components of coastal ecosystems. All this biodiversity has niches within the ecosystem, and performs important roles in how the ecosystem functions. Protecting this biodiversity and maintaining the ecosystem functioning is therefore needed in order to provide food security for communities.

“Unsustainable harvesting for local use and for commercial sale is having a devastating effect on the coastal fisheries and is compromising our future food security. Action needs to be taken to make these fisheries sustainable before it is too late” says Sally Bailey, Conservation Director at WWF-Pacific.

Other benefits include:

  • Buffering of coastal communities from flooding, king tides, storm surges and tsunami events, as mangroves and coral reefs break up wave energy.
  • Protects coral reefs that are important for tourism, by mangrove forests filtering sediment from runoff and regulating water quality.
  • Sequestering and storing carbon from the atmosphere in the wood and mud of the mangrove forests – which is a service that coastal ecosystems in the Pacific provide to the globe.

“When coastal ecosystems are healthy and intact, they provide valuable services to the people of the Pacific Islands and the globe. The more we can identify and quantify these ecosystem services, and use this to improve national and regional policies in Pacific Island nations, the better” says Mr Alan Saunders, Regional Programme Coordinator at IUCN Oceania.

Progress is being made to achieve this, for example through the MACBIO project – Marine and Coastal Biodiversity Management in Pacific Island Countries – which is being jointly implemented by the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and IUCN Oceania, supported by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP).

Traditional custodianship of fishing grounds by Pacific Island communities continues to the present day. Locally managed marine areas (LMMAs) are an example of coastal resource management that is primarily for subsistence purposes, but also achieves biodiversity conservation. LMMAs developed as a result of coastal communities realising that they could capitalize on opportunities for stewardship of their marine and coastal resources, to secure or even restore food supplies. LMMA communities implement sustainable fisheries management and traditional management practices to ensure the food supply from the ocean is sustained into the future. This style of management may protect and sustain coastal biodiversity either intentionally or as a by-product.

While this community management has proved successful on a local scale, larger-scale action is needed to address the main threats to healthy coastal ecosystems – overfishing, population growth, rapid urbanization, habitat degradation and climate change. National and regional action is required to tackle these immense challenges – and the inaugural Pacific Bêche-de-mer and the Future of Coastal Fisheries Meeting has helped to propel the region towards fulfilling this objective.

“Now is the time for the Pacific Islands as a whole – regional organizations, governments, non-government organisations, businesses, educational institutions – to work together and find innovative solutions to help manage our coastal ecosystems and fisheries, so that they remain healthy and prosperous for future generations” said Mr Feleti Penitala Teo, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Development Forum.