Study shows that only 15% of coastal regions are still intact

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  • A new study has found that only 15.5% of the world’s coastal regions remain intact, while the majority of coastal areas are heavily or extremely impacted by human activities such as fishing, agriculture and development.
  • The nations with the largest stretches of untouched coastline included Canada, Russia, and Greenland.
  • The researchers only had access to the data until 2013, so their findings are likely underestimated.
  • The study also did not take into account the impacts of climate change, which would put additional pressure on coastal regions.

Less than 16% of the world’s coastal regions remain intact, while other parts are severely degraded by human activities, according to a new study. While coastal regions are home to rich biodiversity and the livelihoods of billions of people, the authors say urgent action is needed to restore the land-sea interface and protect what has not yet been damaged.

Previous research has examined human pressures on land and human pressures on the ocean separately. This study takes a different approach by looking at both aspects together, focusing on coral reefs, kelp forests, mudflats, seagrass beds, mangroves, estuaries, salt marshes, wetlands, savannahs, forests and deserts.

“We wanted to shine a light on coastal regions, which are often overlooked in these broad assessments,” lead study author Brooke Williams, a conservation ecologist from the University of Queensland in Australia, told Mongabay.

The researchers found that while no coastal area was immune to human influence, about 15.5% had low human pressure. Conversely, about 14% experienced “extreme human pressure” and about 48% were exposed to “high human pressure” such as fishing, agriculture and development.

About 14% of the world’s coastal regions are subject to extreme human pressure, while 48% are exposed to high human pressure. Image from Williams et al (2022).

“We should be pretty worried,” Williams said. “Our newspaper is one of many [that shows] how we push further and further into the limits of the Earth.

Study co-author James Watson, also from the University of Queensland, said he was surprised how few places remained untouched, including remote parts of Australia like western Tasmania and the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

“The fingerprints of mining and fishing are everywhere,” he told Mongabay.

The most pristine places were the subarctic and arctic coasts of Canada, Russia and Greenland. However, other research has shown that the coastlines of these regions of the world will be particularly vulnerable to the dynamics of climate change.

Other countries that have large tracts of untouched coastal areas include Chile, Australia, the United States, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Falkland Islands, the Solomon Islands and Brazil.

Williams said the results are likely an underestimate since their datasets only extend to 2013, and the situation is likely much worse now. Additionally, the researchers did not take climate change into account since the terrestrial human pressures dataset did not include climate change as a stressor.

“Everywhere is affected by climate change, isn’t it?” said Williams. “If we had included climate change in the whole analysis… the results would be much worse.”

The researchers call for urgent action to restore coastal regions and protect what has remained relatively untouched by human activities, including better management strategies and regulation of potentially destructive activities.

“When we talk about keeping regions intact, we’re not just saying protect and lock everyone down,” Williams said. “We say conserve sustainably.”

She added: “We know what needs to be done. We just need political action.

Quotes:

Irrgang, AM, Bendixen, M., Farquharson, LM, Baranskaya, AV, Erikson, LH, Gibbs, AE, … Jones, BM (2022). Drivers, dynamics and impacts of Arctic coastal evolution. Journals Nature Terre & Environnement, 3(1), 39-54. doi:10.1038/s43017-021-00232-1

Williams, BA, Watson, J., Beyer, H., Klein, C., Montgomery, J., Runting, R., … Wenger, A. (2021). The global rarity of intact coastal regions. Conservation Biology. doi:10.1101/2021.05.10.443490

Banner image caption: Coastal landscape. Picture by Leonardo Felippi.

Coastal ecosystems, Conservation, Coral reefs, Degraded land, Estuaries, forest degradation, Forest loss, Land use change, Landscape restoration, Marine biodiversity, Marine conservation, Marine ecosystems, Sea grass beds, Wetlands

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