Perspectives on Coastal Wetlands – National Parks Association of Queensland

Perspectives on Coastal Wetlands

Author: Tallis Martin-Baker

Photography: Tinchi Tamba - Jack Hill (supplied Tallis Martin-Baker)

Tallis Martin-Baker grew up in Redland City, outside Brisbane, and discovered her love for mangroves in her first year of university while studying marine science. In 2020 she completed her Honours on the socioeconomic factors that contribute to coastal wetland conservation and restoration. She now works as a research assistant for the University of Queensland.

There is something about a mangrove forest: something about the dampened quiet, the calm, beneath which water gurgles, birds call, and mosquitoes buzz. Something about the smell – yes, the rotten-egg smell of anoxic sediments, something about the golden orb spiders strung between trees and the squelch of mud underfoot.

Something within me quiets as I step into a mangrove forest.

I realise many people don’t feel the same. Mangroves are the enemy: they stink and breed mosquitoes and ruin ocean views. Mangroves – and other types of coastal wetlands – have suffered from the perception that they are useless ecosystems, worthless, ugly, there to be removed, to make way for high-rise developments or sea walls. In the scientific community, this idea has since been dispelled – coastal wetlands are high value ecosystems, able to sequester many times the amount of carbon as a terrestrial forest, protecting coastlines from erosion, filtering the water that flows through a river, providing vital homes for juvenile fish.

And yet coastal wetlands are still in trouble.

For those who don’t know, the term ‘coastal wetlands’ primarily includes mangroves, saltmarsh, and melaleuca ecosystems. Any ecosystem that exists with regular saltwater or brackish inundation can be classified as such. They are globally known to be important for biodiversity and ecosystem services. But that doesn’t prevent them being cleared for development and other land uses.

Now, governing bodies are generally accepted to have responsibility for protecting these natural environments. And this is true. But governing bodies do not exist in a vacuum. Governments are voted in by a community, (theoretically) according to what the community wants. And, going in the opposite direction, a government’s policy or decisions are made easier or harder by whether or not they align with the broader community’s wishes.

This is evident in the developing world. Social scientists have been studying the influence of socioeconomics on community perceptions of the environment in developing countries, where management, monitoring, and compliance of environmental regulations is often less effective. These studies, focussing on factors such as income and education and how they relate to community attitudes and behaviours, are intended to make the job of environmental governance easier for governments and NGOs in these countries. But when I started to wonder if the same principles worked in countries like Australia, I realised that scientific literature on this topic was few and far between.

We can’t simply pluck results from Tiwoho, North Sulawesi, and apply them to South-East Queensland. Or to Florida, or to Auckland. We do not understand how much we need coastal wetlands, in Australia, not in the same way a person in Cambodia might. We do not use them for firewood, we do not build our houses from them, we do not hunt the animals that live in them. Most of us do not watch the tropical monsoon waves throw themselves against our coastlines, only to dissipate on the mangroves, and know that without those mangroves we would be homeless, without the personal or national resources to rebuild our homes. Communities in developing countries exploit their coastal wetlands because they may have no other option but to starve or freeze. They may have no source of income but that which comes from selling the timber.

What do we do? We cut them down because we do not care. We cut them down because we would rather have luxury apartments or an ocean view. Ideas of community behaviour and attitudes that apply in developing countries cannot be applied worldwide.

Last year, I decided to investigate exactly how these ideas are different in our developed world. I thought that perhaps this could form a baseline for how we approach community attitudes and behaviours towards coastal wetlands in developed countries. I approached it in a practical way – wondering which, if any, socioeconomic and community factors might actually influence coastal wetland conservation and restoration in South-East Queensland. These factors were: income, education, proportion of people identifying as Indigenous, proportion of people who spoke a language other than English in their household, number and size of protected areas and national parks, land use, nature connectedness, and number of Bushcare groups.

The results were quite interesting. I found that, over the past two decades, a higher proportion of people in a suburb identifying as Indigenous was associated with less coastal wetland loss. Given that Indigenous peoples can bring varying perspectives to land management, and traditional methods of land management are often more effective long-term, this was not a surprise. It suggests that people identifying as Indigenous may indeed bring important cultural approaches and perspectives into the broader community.

I also found that in areas where people had completed (on average) higher levels of education, we saw less saltmarsh loss, in particular. Saltmarsh is usually found on the landward edge of mangroves, at least in Australia, and therefore can be more susceptible to development. My findings suggest that higher levels of education may reduce development – either because the community is more informed about the environmental impacts of development and fight development approvals, or because the elected members are more informed about the environmental impacts of development and don’t approve it. This was, again, not a surprising result, but an interesting one.

A greater connection to nature also seemed to be associated with wetland conservation, specifically mangroves. While this may be expected, in reality the cause and effect are not so clear-cut. Higher nature connectedness is important for many conservation and restoration activities; however, previous studies show that nature connectedness will only have a direct positive effect if it translates into environmental action. And indeed, nature connectedness and number of Bushcare groups appeared to be correlated. Bushcare groups were associated with more coastal wetland restoration; however, whether Bushcare groups increased restoration effort, or government investment in restoration resulted in more Bushcare groups (which are often run by local councils) is something I couldn’t determine from my results.

Someone asked me recently, why wetlands? Why mangroves? I struggled, briefly, to articulate it, having lived and breathed this subject for several years now. What I say to people, when they ask, “why mangroves”, is that mangroves provide so many ecosystem services. They sequester carbon, filter water, provide habitat, prevent erosion. My truth, however, is different. My truth is that mangroves – and saltmarsh, and melaleuca – are scientific marvels. They live in saltwater, in soil without oxygen. They live where plants shouldn’t be able to live, and they thrive. But that truth doesn’t float any scientific boats.

So I say to you, now: coastal wetlands provide many ecosystem services. In places where coastal wetlands used to exist, we must now build brick walls so our homes don’t fall into the sea. Water quality in rivers has declined. Fishing stocks are struggling. But many people – so many – don’t realise this. I wanted to know which people realised this, wanted to perhaps understand where coastal wetland conservation or restoration is likely to succeed because the local community realises this.

My project was on a very small scale. But it’s a start.

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