Module 5

What Can We Do to Conserve and Restore Blue Forests?

Module 5: What Can We Do to Conserve and Restore Blue Forests?

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Unfortunately, over the last 20–50 years, 50% of salt marshes, 35% of mangroves, and 29% of seagrasses have been lost.1,2 Kelp forests are also facing a global decline in abundance of 1.8% per year.3 
While restoration efforts are crucial for recovering degraded ecosystems, preserving what already exists is often considered a more effective and efficient strategy.4 Here are a few key points that support this perspective:

  1. Irreversible loss: once a species goes extinct or an ecosystem is significantly altered or destroyed, it may be impossible or very challenging, to fully restore its capacity to provide ecosystem services and maintain the intricate webs of interactions between species that allow for the continued functioning and resilience of the ecosystem as a whole. 5
  2. Time and cost: restoration projects can be time-consuming, expensive, and complex. The process of restoring an ecosystem often involves extensive planning, resource allocation, and ongoing management. Preserving existing ecosystems can be a more cost-effective approach, requiring fewer resources and less effort.
  3. Time lag: restoration projects often require decades to fully develop into self-sustaining ecosystems. In contrast, preserving existing ecosystems immediately maintains their benefits and ecological functions without the need for lengthy recovery periods.

While restoration efforts are valuable for mitigating ecological damage, they may fall short in replicating the intricate dynamics and services found in preserved ecosystems, especially within a short timeframe. The complexity of species interactions highlights the potential for unforeseen consequences even with well-planned ecosystem changes. By prioritizing preservation over restoration, we ensure the long-term health and functionality of ecosystems while minimizing the costs and potential risks associated with altering complex ecological relationships.6

Test your Knowledge!

In this exercise, students will form groups and develop two development plans for an ecosystem of choice. One plan focuses on restoring a degraded ecosystem, the other plan is to preserve a healthy ecosystem.

Preparation:

  1. Form groups.
  2. Select a degraded ecosystem as the focus of your analysis. Examples: Deforested mangrove forests, declining areas of saltmarshes due to dredging activities, damaged seagrass meadows by poor navigation practices, degraded kelp forests due to water pollution.
  3. Enumerate the actions and resources required to reverse the current degraded state of the chosen ecosystem. Be specific and consider both natural and human interventions. Develop a restoration plan that addresses the key challenges and promotes ecosystem recovery. Consider the following:
    • Identify the main cause of degradation. Outline the necessary steps to mitigate or reverse that cause. Example: Measures to address destructive fishing practices:
      • Enforcing fishing regulations and implementing sustainable fishing practices, including the use of selective fishing gear and size limits for targeted species. Educating local communities about sustainable fishing methods and supporting alternative livelihood options to reduce fishing pressures.
    • Discuss the involvement of local communities, NGOs, government agencies, and other stakeholders. Examples:
      • Collaborating with local communities, NGOs, government agencies, and the tourism sector to raise awareness, provide training, and ensure participation in conservation efforts. Engaging scientists and researchers to monitor the reef’s recovery progress and adapt restoration strategies accordingly.
    • Suggest strategies for monitoring and evaluating the success of the restoration efforts. Example: Implementing a monitoring program to assess the success of restoration efforts and key indicators of reef health, such as coral cover, biodiversity, water quality, and fish populations.
  4. Once you have completed the restoration plan, shift your focus to an intact ecosystem similar to the one chosen for degradation. Determine the key factors that contribute to maintaining its current healthy state. Answer the following questions for this intact ecosystem:
    • What natural processes support its stability and resilience? Example: The intact coral reef ecosystem relies on natural processes such as nutrient cycling, symbiotic relationships, and the recruitment of new coral colonies.
    • Are there any specific species or ecological interactions that are crucial for maintaining its integrity? Max. 2 examples. Examples:
      • Implementing measures to conserve keystone species like herbivorous fish, which help control algal growth. Preserving the symbiotic relationship between corals and zooxanthellae, ensuring optimal light conditions and limiting pollution.
    • Identify 1 potential threat that could lead to degradation if left unaddressed and discuss the preventive measures and management strategies required to protect this intact ecosystem. Examples: Measures to prevent pollution:
      • Establishing strict regulations to control runoff from land-based sources and wastewater discharge. Educating the local community about the impact of pollution on reef health and promoting responsible waste management practices.
    • Analyze the role of education, awareness campaigns, and policy frameworks in preserving and conserving the ecosystem. Examples:
      • Conducting educational programs to raise awareness among local communities, tourists, and policymakers about the value of coral reefs and the importance of conservation. Advocating for the implementation and enforcement of policies that protect coral reefs, including zoning regulations, fishing restrictions, and pollution control measures.
  1. Discuss and compare both situations.

It sometimes can be overwhelming to think about applying solutions to the current state of the planet in which preserving what exists might not be enough. By adopting a multiscalar approach, solutions can be implemented across various levels—international, national, regional, and local—enabling comprehensive action that leads to positive change.

International agreements and frameworks, such as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), which paved the way for the establishment of the Decade of Restoration, act as collaborative platforms where countries worldwide unite to address global challenges like climate change. At the national level, governments enact policies and regulations. An example here would be the Portuguese climate law, which established explicit targets and commitments to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. At the regional level, cooperative initiatives and local movements actively support the implementation of context-specific sustainability practices that address the day-to-day needs of communities and the ecosystems they depend on.

During the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15), the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework7 was adopted as a significant step towards achieving a harmonious coexistence between humanity and nature by 2050. Built upon the Convention’s prior Strategic Plans, this framework presents an ambitious roadmap consisting of four goals for 2050 and 23 specific targets to be achieved by 2030.8 Notably, the restoration of marine and coastal ecosystems is emphasized throughout the targets, with Target #2 dedicated to ensuring that, by 2030, at least 30% of degraded terrestrial, inland water, and marine and coastal ecosystems undergo effective restoration. The objective is to enhance biodiversity, ecosystem functions and services, ecological integrity, and connectivity.

Recognizing the urgent need to restore and protect degraded ecosystems on a global scale, the UN launched the Decade on Restoration on World Environment Day, June 5, 2021.9 Extending from 2021 to 2030, this global initiative aims to accelerate action by encouraging countries and stakeholders to establish ambitious targets and commitments for ecosystem restoration. Through collaborative efforts, the Decade seeks to address the pressing environmental challenges and ensure a sustainable future for our planet.

The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 203010 is a comprehensive plan developed by the European Union to address the ongoing biodiversity crisis within its member states. The strategy was adopted in May 2020 as part of the European Green Deal initiative, which aims to make Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The key goals of the strategy include:

  1. Protecting and restoring ecosystems: it aims to effectively manage protected areas, restore degraded ecosystems, and establish green infrastructure networks. It seeks to protect at least 30% of the EU’s land and sea areas, with a significant portion designated as strictly protected areas.
  2. Restoring and enhancing biodiversity: it focuses on restoring degraded ecosystems, increasing the availability and quality of habitats, and promoting the recovery of pollinators and other essential species. It aims to bring back at least 25,000 km2 of degraded ecosystems in the EU.
  3. Making agriculture and forestry more sustainable: it encourages the adoption of sustainable agricultural and forestry practices, including organic farming, agroecology, and sustainable forest management.
  4. Achieving zero pollution and reducing the impact of invasive alien species: it seeks to reduce the use and impact of pesticides, fertilizers, and other harmful chemicals and to eliminate the detrimental effects of invasive alien species on biodiversity, ecosystems, and human activities.
  5. Increasing the EU’s contribution to global biodiversity: it recognizes the importance of global biodiversity and commits to strengthening international cooperation to address the biodiversity crisis. It aims to integrate biodiversity considerations into all relevant EU policies and enhance support for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development in other countries.

More recently, in June 2022, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a Nature Restoration Law as a part of the EU Biodiversity Strategy.11 It integrates a comprehensive objective of restoring a minimum of 20% of the EU’s land and sea areas by 2030 and eventually all ecosystems requiring restoration by 2050. 

In December 2020, the Portuguese Parliament approved a set of legislative measures that constitute the “Lei do Clima,” also known as “Lei nº 93/2019”.12 This law establishes the framework for climate change mitigation policies in Portugal and sets targets and commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some key points of the law include:

  1. Carbon neutrality: Portugal has set the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, meaning balancing carbon dioxide emissions with removals from the atmosphere.
  2. Emission reduction: the objective is to reduce emissions by at least 50% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.
  3. Renewable energy: the goal is to reach at least 80% renewable electricity by 2030.
  4. Energy efficiency: encourages energy efficiency in buildings, transportation, and the industrial sector, aiming to reduce energy consumption and associated emissions.
  5. Sustainable transport: encourages the use of public transport, electric vehicles, and other low-emission means of transportation.

In 2019, thanks to the recommendation made by Ocean Alive together with national and international experts, the Portuguese government recognized seagrass meadows and saltmarshes within the country’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)13 (Articles 19 and 58), which refer to the climate action plans that countries submit under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

Each country determines its own NDCs based on its national circumstances, capabilities, and priorities. NDCs typically include targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as strategies and policies to achieve those targets. They can cover various sectors such as energy, transportation, agriculture, and waste management. 

Ecological restoration refers to the process of repairing, rehabilitating, and restoring damaged or degraded ecosystems to a more natural and functional state. It involves activities aimed at enhancing ecological processes, biodiversity, and ecosystem services within a given area. 

The restoration of blue forests can be achieved through both active and passive restoration methods, depending on the specific habitat and conditions.

Active restoration involves direct human intervention, such as mangrove reforestation, seagrass transplantation, and salt marsh creation. These techniques require careful site selection and the planting or construction of suitable habitat structures. On the other hand, passive restoration focuses on creating favorable conditions for natural recovery processes without direct human intervention. This approach involves habitat protection, ecosystem management, and promoting ecological connectivity. By establishing marine protected areas, implementing sustainable management practices, and enhancing connectivity between fragmented habitats, passive restoration facilitates the natural recovery and resilience of blue forests.

  1. Mangroves
    Wetlands International, in collaboration with the Indonesian government and other partners, is actively involved in assisting local communities in the rejuvenation of mangroves along a 20 km stretch of coastline in the Demak district in Java. This initiative utilizes semi-permeable sea walls constructed from natural materials that effectively trap mud and sediments, enabling mangroves to naturally regenerate with a survival rate of 70%. Over time, as the mangroves’ roots accumulate soil, the risk of rising sea levels inundating nearby communities diminishes. This endeavor not only serves to enhance the resilience of approximately 70,000 individuals to climate change impacts but also offers valuable assistance to shrimp farmers. As a result, these farmers have witnessed a threefold increase in shrimp yields, further emphasizing the positive outcomes achieved through this integrated approach.
    Watch a video about this project to learn more.
  2. Seagrass
    The Nature Conservancy, together with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has restored 2000 ha of eelgrass (VIMS). The reduction of eelgrass in Virginia Bay, particularly from the mid-1970s onwards, has sparked attention towards the restoration of this valuable ecosystem. Starting in 1978, scientists from VIMS embarked on a study to explore methods of reintroducing eelgrass to areas where it had disappeared and played a pioneering role in developing tools and techniques for collecting, preserving, and deploying shoots and seeds to restore seagrass, not only in Virginia but also globally. Watch a video about this project to learn more.
  3. Saltmarshes
    In England, the Essex Wildlife Trust and the Environment Agency have initiated a trial of “salt marsh sausages” at two locations in Essex: the Colne Estuary and the nearby Blackwater Estuary. A total of 30 sausages were installed at these sites with the aim of providing a stable environment for vegetation growth and sediment accumulation. The anticipated outcome is a reduction in tidal energy and erosion, both along the marsh edges and internally. To evaluate the effectiveness of the sausages, Langley’s team, in collaboration with the University of Essex, is monitoring the establishment of vegetation and the amount of carbon stored in the sediment. Additionally, drone imagery is being utilized to assess the impact of the sausages on channels and their ability to mitigate incoming tides. Watch a video about this project to learn more.
  4. Kelp forests
    The Green Gravel Action Group (GGAG) is an international group of researchers and institutions that aims to restore kelp forests using the accessible and scalable Green Gravel technique. By seeding rocks or lines with kelp propagules, nurturing them in controlled lab conditions, and planting them in the field, Green Gravel overcomes challenges like underwater operations and complex life cycles associated with kelp restoration. The strategic seeding of resilient kelp species enhances the forests’ resilience to climate change impacts. The GGAG’s mission is to trial Green Gravel restoration in different regions and facilitate the exchange of research findings. They will develop protocols tailored to various kelp species and locations, enabling widespread implementation of the technique. Watch a video about this project to learn more.

 

Restoration carries a powerful message of both action and optimism, capable of taking place on different levels, whether it is the closest coastal area, or a globally threatened ecosystem like seagrass meadows or mangrove forests. The #GenerationRestoration campaign promoted by the United Nations, strives to inspire individuals to discover chances for tangible restoration efforts and demonstrate how we can alleviate the strain on ecosystems by altering our behaviors. To encourage participation, UNEP has published a practical guide to ecosystem restoration based on three main ways to get involved; our actions, our choices and our voices.

  1. Get informed: Knowledge is our most powerful tool to stop and reverse degradation. Once we know what exists and the cause of degradation, we can look for answers and solutions.
  2. Build community: The greater the number of individuals willing to restore and protect nature, the greater the positive effect it will have on it. Sharing and exchanging knowledge with different groups and individuals can also be beneficial to be creative and find solutions together.
  3. Find your way to participate: Restoration can be done differently depending on the ecosystem and circumstances. This can be as simple as going to the beach to pick litter by yourself or with some friends. If you are more interested in the political perspective of climate change and ecosystem restoration, you can go to a climate march and meet like-minded people.

 

Test your Knowledge!

Think about three ways you could also apply measures from the practical guide of #GenerationRestoration within the blue forests habitat closest to you.

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