Unfortunately, wetlands are rapidly being replaced for agriculture or urban development, which takes away some of the ecosystem services that these ecosystems provide for various species, including humans.
On World Wetlands day, take a look at five facts you might not know about these unique ecosystems.
1. Wetlands are the “kidneys of the landscape”
Similar to human kidneys, the organs that extract waste from our blood and balance body fluids, wetlands have the ability to clean the water that flows through them, mitigate large flood events and recharge underground aquifers.
Wetlands can also provide fisheries and timber resources, habitat for biodiversity , and protect coastal communities from extreme events, such as typhoons and hurricanes. They also make lucrative destinations for ecotourism, shoring up the bottom line for local economies across the globe.
2. Wetlands can mitigate climate change
Coastal wetlands such as mangroves forests sequester and store large quantities of blue carbon in the vegetation and the sediment below. “Blue carbon” is the carbon that is stored naturally by marine and coastal ecosystems, hence the name. Blue carbon ecosystems hold a LOT of carbon — a given area of mangrove forest, for example, can store up to 10 times as much carbon as the same area of land-based forest. It’s important to protect and conserve blue carbon because the release of this carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2) is a major driver of climate change.
3. Wetlands are a habitat for biodiversity
The species found in wetlands are some of the most unique in the world because they’ve evolved specifically to survive in these hydrologically changing ecosystems. Alligators, crocodiles, muskrats, nutrias, fish species and hundreds of birds, including mallards, geese and herons are all found in wetlands. More than half of the 800 species of protected migratory birds in the U.S. relay on wetlands. The vegetation found in wetlands is also unique as they have evolved to survive in seasonally flooded and saline conditions. Some examples include the cattail in freshwater wetlands and mangrove species in coastal wetlands.
4. Many of the world’s wetlands are degraded
The threats to wetlands continue as many of the wetlands are still being drained, destroyed and replaced with agricultural fields, commercial and residential urban developments. In the case of coastal wetlands, many are still cleared for aquaculture (fish and shrimp ponds). The destruction of wetlands also negatively impacts the lives of millions of humans that depend on the ecosystem services provided by the wetlands.
5. Your Support for sustainable fishing can help protect wetlands
To protect coastal wetlands from aquaculture, try finding sustainable alternatives to avoid eating farmed shrimp from cleared mangrove areas. You can do this by shopping at stores that have made commitments to selling sustainable seafood, using mobile apps that identify sustainable product and looking for seafood eco-label logos, such as the Marine Stewardship Council. On this World Wetlands Day, I encourage you and a friend to visit your nearest wetland, learn about its components and how the local communities benefit from the ecosystem.
Jorge Ramos is Conservation International’s manager for oceans and climate and has a Ph.D. in wetland ecosystem ecology.