The Canopy Project

Understanding mangroves: appreciating a unique and vulnerable ecosystem

Crabs scuttling through treetops, sharks swimming through barnacle-encrusted roots, fish climbing up tree trunks – these aren’t scenes from a science fiction movie, but real-life habitats in mangrove forests around the world.

With June 26th marking UNESCO’s International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem, there’s no better time to learn about the weird and wonderful qualities of these otherworldly terrains. 

Uniquely valuable and uniquely vulnerable, mangroves maintain a delicate balance between the land and sea. Situated on coasts around the world, these forests flood with saltwater several times a day, lending to their unique combination of terrestrial and aquatic characteristics. Their tangled webs of roots are hidden and exposed with the moving tide, supporting half-submerged trees and housing a plethora of unusual critters. 

Like any other forest, mangroves provide valuable services to the human and wildlife communities around them. EDN is protecting such ecosystems through our Canopy Project, ensuring that we give back to the forests that have benefited us in countless ways. 

In the case of mangroves, these benefits are tied to their unusual locations. They act as buffers, absorbing storm surges and protecting coastal communities from flooding. Their complex root systems filter pollutants from the land, cleaning water before it reaches the ocean. And, as with all forests, mangroves capture and store vast amounts of atmospheric carbon. 

Surviving in soft and sandy soils, the trees have evolved accordingly, most visibly through their odd root formations. They loop and dip in strange figures, some making wide, stabilizing arches from the trunk’s center like the flying buttresses of the Notre Dame cathedral. Others poke straight up through the surface of the water, like pilings in the canals of Venice, to reach the oxygen lacking in their soil. 

Mangroves’ charming intricacies speak to nature’s fascinating ability to adapt to any environment. Despite this, these ecosystems are dangerously at-risk from a variety of human activities. 

The forests’ salt-friendly characteristics should have kept them resilient to rising sea levels. But in many cases, this natural flexibility is interrupted by human development. Rather than moving inland with an encroaching coastline, the ecosystems are halted by buildings and paved roads, creating a lose-lose situation as those same coastal communities miss out on the forests’ valuable ecosystem services. 

However, this gradual habitat loss is nothing compared to its complete destruction. By far the biggest historical threat to coastal mangroves has been shrimp farming

The 80s and 90s brought a jumbo-sized shrimp boom to southeast Asia, where many coastal mangroves are concentrated. Entire forests need to be cleared and areas flooded to make room for these aquaculture operations, which bring along their own set of dangerous environmental consequences. A 2013 study found that commercial aquaculture accounted for 54% of mangrove displacement (¾ of which was from shrimp specifically), and since the 70s, 51% of the total worldwide mangrove area had been lost. 

Luckily, alternative practices that integrate aquaculture and forest conservation promise to bring the best of both worlds. Carefully considering the ecosystems’ intricacies, these methods are proven to revitalize lost mangroves while still providing economically for local communities. 

The theme for Earth Day 2021 is Restore Our Earth – a necessary step in this restoration is understanding and appreciating each of Earth’s uniquely complex ecosystems. This year’s International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem is the perfect opportunity to honor these exceptional habitats; donate to our Canopy Project to restore our planet’s beautiful and unquestionably vital forests today.