Breaking the waves – conservation conundrum of bioshields

9 12 2009

Today’s post covers a neat little review just published online in Conservation Letters by Feagin and colleagues entitled Shelter from the storm? Use and misuse of coastal vegetation bioshields for managing natural disasters. I’m covering this for three reasons: (1) it’s a great summary and wake-up call for those contemplating changing coastal ecosystems in the name of disaster management, (2) I have a professional interest in the ecosystem integrity-disaster interface and (3) I had the pleasure of editing this article.

I’ve blogged about quite a few papers on ecosystem services (including some of my own) because I think making the link between ecosystem integrity and human health, wealth and well-being are some of the best ways to convince Joe Bloggs that saving species he’ll never probably see are in his and his family’s best (and selfish) interests. Convincing the poverty-stricken, the greedy and the downright stupid of biodiversity’s inherent value will never, ever work (at least, it hasn’t worked yet).

Today’s feature paper discusses an increasingly relevant policy conundrum in conservation – altering coastal ecosystems such that planted/restored/conserved vegetation minimises the negative impacts of extreme weather events (e.g., tsunamis, cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes): the so-called ‘bioshield’ effect. The idea is attractive – coastal vegetation acts to buffer human development and other land features from intense wave action, so maintain/restore it at all costs.

The problem is, as Feagin and colleagues point out in their poignant review, ‘bioshields’ don’t really seem to have much effect in attenuating the big waves resulting from the extreme events, the very reason they were planted in the first place. Don’t misunderstand them – keeping ecosystems like mangroves and other coastal communities intact has enormous benefits in terms of biodiversity conservation, minimised coastal erosion and human livelihoods. However, with massive coastal development in many parts of the world, the knee-jerk reaction has been to plant up coasts with any sort of tree/shrub going without heeding these species’ real effects. Indeed, many countries have active policies now to plant invasive species along coastal margins, which not only displace native species, they can displace humans and likely play little part in any wave attenuation.

This sleeping giant of a conservation issue needs some serious re-thinking, argue the authors, especially in light of predicted increases in extreme storm events resulting from climate change. I hope policy makers listen to that plea. I highly recommend the read.

CJA Bradshaw

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ResearchBlogging.orgFeagin, R., Mukherjee, N., Shanker, K., Baird, A., Cinner, J., Kerr, A., Koedam, N., Sridhar, A., Arthur, R., Jayatissa, L., Lo Seen, D., Menon, M., Rodriguez, S., Shamsuddoha, M., & Dahdouh-Guebas, F. (2009). Shelter from the storm? Use and misuse of coastal vegetation bioshields for managing natural disasters Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2009.00087.x


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13 12 2009
Mary Ellen Ryall

The article on bioshields for coastal protection was insightful. I personally have seen the benefit of mangroves off the coast of Venezuela. At least years ago native people spoke about aquatic species that thrived in these safe water havens. I liked the reference to leaf compost on the water’s floor.

I imagine Mangroves long extended roots grasping and holding the sand beneath the water and helping to create a balance for life. Invasive species are the end all for native vegetation. I just published a blog article on water and the movie Flow. Privatization of water is now one of the fastest growning threats to the world’s fresh water supply.

Thank you for opening our eyes to other reasons why we need to protect coastlines. Around Shell Lake, even tough we have shoreline protection, we still have property owners who insist on mowing grass right down to the water’s edge. The city is planting native plants at 13 public access points in the hopes of teaching others about water purification and sustainability.

10 12 2009
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