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Australasian Plant Conservation

Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation 20(2) September - November 2011, p 5-6

Conserving coastal wetland vegetation with WetlandCare Australia’s Blue Carbon program

Simone Haigh
WetlandCare Australia, Ballina, NSW. Email:simonehaigh@wetlandcare.com.au

Eroding salt marsh at Lake Coombabah, Qld.

Eroding salt marsh at Lake Coombabah, Qld. The high amounts of carbon in these soils are evident as the colour difference between the dark mud of the saltmarsh and the lighter coloured sand. Photo: C. Bolzenius, WCA.

Healthy mangroves and saltmarsh at North Creek, Ballina, NSW.

Healthy mangroves and saltmarsh at North Creek, Ballina, NSW. Photo A. Gosling, WCA.

Coastal wetlands

Coastal wetlands, in particular mangrove forests, saltmarsh and seagrass have suffered massive losses globally. In developing countries, those that remain continue to face the threat of clearing for urbanisation and agriculture. In Australia mangrove forests, seagrass and saltmarsh are protected under state laws, however many of these types of coastal wetlands have already been lost and those that remain are threatened by factors such as the siltation of rivers and streams, physical damage, pollution and poor water quality. This is despite the fact that they provide vital food and habitat resources for numerous species of recreationally and commercially important fish species as well as providing a significant protective buffer from extreme weather events.

Protecting and restoring coastal wetlands

Throughout its 20 year history, WetlandCare Australia (WCA) has used innovative methods to deliver on its commitment to protect, promote and restore wetlands. In this time, numerous projects have been undertaken to protect and rehabilitate coastal wetland vegetation, in particular saltmarsh, mangroves and seagrass meadows. These include:

  • the rehabilitation of wheel ruts in saltmarsh beds and the prevention of unauthorised access
  • weed and erosion control
  • assessment of vegetation migration pathways in the face of sea level rise
  • the reinstatement of natural hydrology.

WetlandCare Australia’s range extends well into upper catchment areas where rehabilitation actions, such as erosion control, are a vital component of helping to protect downstream seagrass beds from being smothered with sediment from catchment runoff.

Wetlands and climate change

As well as their role in helping to take up and store carbon, healthy coastal wetlands are critical in mitigating some of the likely predicted effects of climate change. Coastal wetlands are able to protect shorelines, and subsequently coastal communities, in the face of extreme weather events. This is of great importance, as severe weather events such as storms and cyclones are predicted to become more frequent. The effects of climatic extremes such as increased drought and fire frequency, and changes in rainfall patterns are all likely to impact on coastal wetlands. Ensuring these ecosystems are functional and healthy is crucial to maintaining ecosystem resilience.

Blue carbon

There is an exciting field of research emerging that has added new weight to the existing case for the conservation of coastal wetlands. A seminal report published in 2009 called The Management of Natural Coastal Carbon Sinks (Laffoley and Grimsditch 2009) brought together the latest research into the carbon sequestration capacities of key coastal ecosystems. This was then followed by the Blue Carbon Rapid Response Assessment Report (Nellemann et al. 2009) which highlights the critical role of oceans and ocean ecosystems in maintaining our climate.

When it comes to carbon sinks, tropical rainforest like the Amazon is usually the first type of environment that springs to mind. This new research however, has shown that the carbon sequestration rates of coastal wetlands are actually much higher than those of terrestrial systems. Conversely, the destruction of these wetlands is contributing a disproportionate amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere and these systems continue to emit CO2 for years after their destruction. In addition to the many established ecosystem services that these types of coastal wetlands provide, their role as significant carbon sinks is now being realised.

There are schemes underway in Australia that aim to utilise the ability of natural systems to take up carbon to offset greenhouse gas emissions. WetlandCare Australia is Australia’s leading not-for-profit wetland conservation organisation, and thus the idea of the introduction of a market based mechanism that provides a financial incentive to landowners for restoring coastal wetlands is a very appealing prospect. WetlandCare Australia’s Blue Carbon program was launched in 2010. The overarching goal of this program is to promote the Blue Carbon agenda in Australia and work towards the inclusion of coastal wetlands in Australia’s climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.

This is being accomplished by establishing partnerships with universities to facilitate and guide key research priorities in this emerging field, and by fostering the recognition of the role of coastal wetlands in the voluntary carbon market and their potential contribution towards Australia’s Kyoto obligations. WetlandCare Austraia is also continuing to work towards the ongoing rehabilitation of key coastal wetland environments, particularly through the $2.5 million Coastal 20 Wetlands Project funded under the Australian Government’s Caring for our Country program. This project will effectively address connectivity at a regional scale by covering 1,000 kilometres of the eastern seaboard, and building resilience in the face of climate change.

Losses of coastal wetlands have been high globally. Many of those that remain are in developing countries. The challenge for international authorities is to develop a market based mechanism that provides financial incentives for these communities to conserve these ecosystems in the face of threats from population pressures, development and agriculture. In Australia, it has been estimated that in highly populated areas the loss of wetlands has been as great as 90% and those that remain are now almost all protected. The challenge is to develop and use these market based instruments to provide a financial incentive to restore the coastal ecosystems that remain, and reinstate those that have been lost.

Working towards offsetting greenhouse gas pollution

Who knows how much carbon is locked up in Australian coastal wetland plants and soils? Who knows how much carbon may be able to be drawn out of the atmosphere if large scale coastal wetland restoration projects were to be undertaken in otherwise marginal areas? WetlandCare Australia will continue to pursue opportunities to answer these questions, as well as working towards the development of a method that will allow an economic value to be placed on the important role that coastal wetlands play in offsetting greenhouse gas pollution.

‘Targeted investments in the sustainable management of coastal and marine ecosystems – the natural infrastructure – alongside the rehabilitation and restoration of damaged and degraded ones, could prove a very wise transaction with inordinate returns’.
Achim Steiner UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director, UNEP 2009


Laffoley, D. d’A. & Grimmsditch, G. (eds). 2009. The Management of Natural Coastal Carbon Sinks. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. 53 pp. http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/carbon_managment_report_final_printed_version.pdf

Nellemann, C., Corcoran, E., Duarte, C. M., Valdés, L., De Young, C., Fonseca, L., Grimsditch, G. (Eds). 2009. Blue Carbon. A Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme, GRID-Arendal, http://www.grida.no/publications/rr/blue-carbon/