Mangrove forests, found around Thailand's 2,600 kilometres of coastline between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, constitute an important resource for the health of local eco-systems, as well as the fisheries and tourism industries. It's a delicate balance, for sure, and one that was heavily leaning towards rapid economic development, which resulted in significant loss of marine environments.
Today, the tide (no pun intended) seems to be turning back to preservation of the mangrove forests, spotlighting their value as highly productive ecosystems that provide a number of benefits to both coastal habitats and people's livelihoods. Here's why mangroves matter.
They offer coastal protection. Mangrove forests are characterised by a series of elaborate root systems sprawling above and below the waterline. They trap sediment flowing down waterways and from the land. This stops soil erosion, especially when the land is battered by tropical storms. In coastal areas that once housed mangroves, storm damage is much more severe.
They are a crucial link in the food chain. Mangroves transfer organic matter, such as dead leaves and branches, and energy from the land to marine ecosystems. Basically, bacteria break down the detritus, releasing useful nutrients into the water that benefit marine animals.
They house a variety of animal species. The dense roots are good spawning grounds for fish, crabs, shrimps, and molluscs such as clams and oysters. In addition, mangrove forests provide nesting and migratory sites for a large number of bird species, as well as reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.
They support livelihoods. Given the above, mangrove forests are an essential food source for local communities who catch and consume fish, crabs, shellfish and more. Also, mangrove wood is a valuable resource that's highly resistant to rot and insects, and can be used as a building material and for fuel, among other uses.
They bolster tourism. Given the natural beauty and tranquility in the mangrove systems (and their proximity to beaches) in Thailand, they attract tourists. Just an hour outside of Bangkok in Samut Songkhram province, for example, one can embark on a day trip to a mangrove forest to view the diversity of life in this rich habitat. Tours are arranged for visitors to see the mangroves by boat at high tide and perhaps visit a fisheries project or local village; visitors also have the opportunity learn more about the ecosystem and to plant some mangrove trees too, to restore the fragile coastline while sequestering carbon (every mangrove tree planted sequesters one tonne of CO2!). It's hard and muddy work, but very worthwhile!