Why Mangroves Are Important to the Environment

importance of mangroves

Within tropical zones, mangroves are largely taken for granted. They are distributed around the world as far north as California and Florida and as far south as Australia. Their prominence is along marine shorelines and within estuaries. Although they can be found in 118 countries and territories, Central America harbors fifteen percent of the world’s mangroves.

Mangroves contribute to that eerie swamp-like effect found along tidal basins thick with salt water grasses and flourishing with a variety of marine life, including fish, water fowl, amphibians and reptiles. Their naked roots are like spindly vines, bowing or rambling over silt covered flats, barely digging into the soil. But these mangrove forests, appearing as both shrubs and trees, play a remarkable role, not only in the delicate ecosystems of marine environments but they are also an important factor in mitigating climate change.

The Carbon Blue Print

In the same manner as salt marshes and sea grasses, mangroves have a wonderful propensity for storing blue carbon. Scientists have estimated that the carbon sequestration and storage capacity of mangrove ecosystems is as high, if not higher than that of rain forests. One of the unique characteristics concerning mangroves is that instead of reaching soil equilibrium within decades, the deposits of carbon dioxide stored within these coastal ecosystems can be contained over millennium.

mangrove roots

The Mangroves of Panama

An exciting aspect of Panama’s mangroves is their amazing diversity. Mangroves can be found in both the Gulf of Panama, on the Pacific side, and along the Caribbean Sea. Its populations are a botanist’s dream, with all three mangrove types in existence, along with a number of sub-species. Of particular interest are the Panama Bight mangroves, considered one of the most important intact mangrove systems in the world, as well as being the tallest among the Neotropic specimens. These amazing trees can grow in excess of thirty meters in height.

Biologists have concluded that the relationship between mangroves and reef communities are far greater than first assumed. Coral reef fish are twice as abundant in areas where mangroves thrive than in areas where mangrove populations have been depleted. Thirty different species of fish have been found to live out their juvenile stages among the mangrove, where they can hide from predatory fish until they are large enough to migrate to the reefs. The parrot fish, in particular, depends completely on the mangroves for survival.

Mangroves to the Rescue

The roots of mangroves help in the development of mud flats for oyster beds and are the home of choice for several species of crab. This filtering effect prevents surpluses of silt and pollutants from flushing into the sea, damaging or killing the coral reefs. The dead leaves that fall from the mangroves provide important nutrients for marine organisms. The mangroves also serve as water reservoirs, slowly releasing their waters during Panama’s dry season.

In accordance with their ability to anchor mud flats that provide an ecosystem for Panama’s marine life, mangroves assist in the prevention of erosion, reclaiming coastal lands flooded by hurricanes and torrential storms. In fact, mangroves serve as an enormous buffer during hurricane season. There is far less damage done to coastal villages and residential areas with mangrove populations along their coastal fronts than to areas where the mangroves have been cleared.

Conserving Mangroves

Seventy-five percent of Panama’s mangrove forests were lost between 1980 and 1990. Conservation efforts in recent years have reversed some of the environmental damage, primarily in the Bay of Panama where the mangrove habitats are critical to migrating birds. Two hundred thousand acres of Panama wetlands were set aside in 2009 as a globally important birding area.

Panama’s mangroves are also vital to a number of animal species placed on the endangered list including the American crocodile, the jaguar, spider monkeys and loggerhead sea turtles. The Supreme Court suspended its protection last year in favor of high-end development zones and industrial sites, but reversed its decision on April 9, 2013.

Other threats to Panama’s mangroves include cattle rearing, shrimp farms and oil and chemical spills. Seventy percent of Panama’s population uses mangroves for firewood. However, fisheries are Panama’s number one industry, which includes snappers, corvinas, robalos and anchovies, all of which rely on a mangrove habitat.


Finding Compatible Solutions

Panama’s development needs cannot be ignored, and can be accomplished as long as they do not encroach too much on the bay, jeopardizing Panama’s mangroves. Panama’s new open door policy, which has encouraged immigration into the beautiful country, has also brought a number of environmentalists actively seeking solutions for the preservation of the mangrove forests, while working closely with indigenous communities.

Their work has entailed the introduction and provision of community training with the construction and maintenance of composting latrines, which improve the overall health of villagers, as well as creating fewer pollutant run-offs.

They also provide sustainable fishing techniques for local fishing associations and have introduced a compact stove that will reduce the amount of firewood needed among the local population by 75%.

Ecology oriented community members have contributed to the construction of plant nurseries, reforestation of water catchment areas using local tree species and the design and implementation of micro-watersheds.

Panama is an energetic country, ready to embrace new technologies for balancing its economic needs with crucial environmental considerations. It is a land of enormous beauty with abundant wildlife, exotic birds and fish species, pristine beaches and an opportunity to participate in keeping the country green and vibrant.

The country has to achieve a critical balance between development and conservation and this begins with its mangrove forests. The many benefits they bring such as food and shelter, the buffering of storm surges, the protection of delicate coral reeds and the sequestration of carbon dioxide should not be disregarded lightly.

Note From Green Steve: Today’s post was co-authored by Karla Fetrow & Josh Linnes. Josh is an American expat living in Costa Rica. He writes for “Viva Tropical” and is the founder of property investment company Emerging Terrains. You can reach him on Google+

Karla Fetrow (2 Posts)

As a native Alaskan, Karla Fetrow advocates the subsistence lifestyle, which minimises the use of our renewable resources as well as creating a greater harmony with nature.

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