You have no idea how badly I wanted to jump down into the thick black mud.
I don’t remember much about primary school but I do have strong recollections of an assignment on the importance of mangroves to the ecology of the Parramatta River. Perhaps not the assignment itself, but I do remember Mum and Dad taking me down to the river and I drew some pictures of the twists and turns of branches and trunks and the finger-like pneumatophores punching up through the thick dark grey mud. It may only have been 10 minutes drive from home in Western Sydney but it was a glimpse into a world so strange and alluring, how could it not have made an impact on me?
I remember the great disappointment of my parent’s stern words keeping me from jumping down below the high water mark and into the mud. The same feelings of frustration and disappointment when stopped from doing other fun things like playing in stormwater drains, letting off firecrackers or swimming in rips!
Mangroves don’t just attract the attention of young environmental scientists. Exploiting a unique place between the land and sea, mangroves have intrigued and fascinated many before me with the first descriptions, by Greek mariners, thought to date back to 325BC. What were these plants that seemed to defy logic, growing half submerged in salty water?
Almost thirty years after my primary school assignment, with sandshoes replaced by gumboots, that childhood disappointment of adventure squashed is now matched by the realisation that mangroves aren’t perfect. In fact, they’re a threat to some of the other plants and animals found in our local local estuaries.
Now I spend most of my summer coated in that same dark grey mud, covered in mosquito bites and thinking about how important mangrove management will be for the future of our coastal wetlands.
More than mangroves
There is little doubt mangroves are an ecologically important habitat. They provide a home for a wide range of creatures, from bacteria to birds. Rich in nutrients and hiding places, mangroves are perfect nurseries for fish and crustaceans. Bird and bats and rodents and reptiles all find a home here too.
They’re threatened by climate change but they may also play a critical role in protecting our shoreline against sea level rise and storm surges. Sea level rise itself may knock out mangrove forests too but mangroves could also mitigate the impacts of climate change by storing carbon. In fact, the role estuarine wetlands may play in keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere could be critical.
Make no mistake, mangroves are important. Thing is, it is also important to also remember that estuarine wetlands are more than just mangroves.
When we talk about estuarine wetlands, we’re grouping together a number of habitats that include seagrass, saltmarsh, sedgelands and mudflats as well as mangroves. Each of these habitats play an important role in the functioning of the estuary as a whole but they each, individually, provide something specific to the wildlife that utilise the wetlands.
Saltmarshes are critically important and are in desperate need of conservation. In NSW they’re listed as Endangered Ecological Communities. As well as urbanisation and pollution, a changing climate and sea level rise risk severely degrading the quality of these habitats.
One of the key threats facing saltmarshes is a native plant. A native estuarine wetland plant. Mangroves.
The encroachment of mangroves into saltmashes is a serious problem. This is happening in many parts of the world. It is a strange situation in which one native plant is taking over another and with these ecological shifts, there are knock-on effects to other components of the wetland ecosystem. Most importantly, nesting and feeding shorebirds.
Are mangroves really a threat?
The mangroves are just doing what mangroves do. The reason they’re threatening saltmarshes is due to our modification of local environments.
Urban runoff reduces the salinity of these wetlands and this reduced salinity not only removes the ecological advantages of salt-tolerent saltmarsh plants, such as Sarcocornia quinqueflora and Sporobolus virginicus, but it helps mangrove seeds and seedlings survive the otherwise harsh environmental conditions of saltmarshes. Lower the salinity, increase the invasive potential of mangroves.
Frequent dryness and highly salty conditions are a saltmarsh’s best defense against invading mangroves.
Filling in wetlands and the construction of seawalls, roadways and other infrastructure give saltmarshes little refuge or respite from these threats. While mangroves encroach from the sea, there is nowhere for saltmarshes to migrate to when dealing with sea level rise.
They’re cornered and under attack but even where the plants are persisting, the quality of habitat they provide for local wildlife is slowly degraded by colonising mangrove seedlings.
There are many waterbirds that use our local estuaries that are under threat. Saltmarshes are great habitats for migratory shorebirds. There are plentiful resources in the form of insects and other invertebrates within the sediments. The birds can nest on the marsh and as they can see all around, predators are easy to spot. They feel safe.
There have been declines in the White-fronted Chat populations around Sydney. Many other populations of wading birds associated with Australia’s coastal wetlands are in decline too. Mangrove invasion isn’t the only thing to blame but it is an issue that needs to be addressed.
For many of these birds, the encroachment of mangroves into mudflats and saltmarshes is a problem. Its a problem for their foraging and nesting. Once mangrove seedlings start popping up on the middle of the saltmarsh, all those advantages of a wide open habitat in which predators are easy to spot are lost.
Imagine you’re a black-winged stilt. You’re trying to find a safe place to nest. A perfect place would be a raised area of saltmarsh surrounded by water. A dead flat saltmarsh with clear lines of sight for dozens of meters around. You’ll be able to see an approaching predator (like a fox or a feral cat) from far enough way to escape with plenty of time to spare. Now, stick a few mangrove seedlings here and there. They start to obscure your view. They’ll give sneaky predators a place to hide. Even if there are not predators about, you’ll probably get nervous. You’ll probably spend more time thinking about the threat of predators and less time foraging for food.
As mangroves move in, the birds will leave. Long before the saltmarsh is over run by mangroves, out-competed by the shade of establishing young mangroves, the quality of the habitat for many shorebirds will have already been lost. There may be some plants remaining but the ecological role of the habitat is gone.
Painting the picture of change in the local wetlands
How can we predict what will happen in the future if we haven’t learned from the past?
Tracking change in these wetlands is important. The use of photography has played an important role in tracking environmental change for a long time. Aerial photography and satellite imagery have helped reveal dramatic changes in vegetation associated with Australia’s coastal wetlands. This analysis has demonstrated the encroachment of mangroves into saltmarshes and this encroachment is considered a key threatening process of this endangered ecological community.
How can we track the encroachment of mangroves? While technology has helped reveal current changes in mangrove encroachment, other uses of imagery can explore relatively recent “urban myths” about historic mangrove distribution.
Thinking back to that school assignment, I remember being told how important mangroves were to the local environment. We we taught that, here in Sydney, that mangroves were always part of the Parramatta River estuary, that they have alwasy been a critical component of the river’s ecology. Was this really the case?
There has been some brilliant detective work done to determine the historic distribution of mangroves along the Parramatta River in this paper titled “Estuarine wetlands distribution along the Parramatta River, Sydney, 1788–1940: implications for planning and conservation“. The authors have used old photos and, in particular, some of the earliest paintings from the Sydney region (together with notes from settlers at the time) and found that the estuary was dominated by mudflats and saltmarsh habitats and that extensive areas of mangroves did not occur until the 20th Century.
To quote the author, Lynette C. McLoughlin:
“These historical sources indicate that in the 19th century extensive mudflats and saltmarsh communities dominated the inter-tidal zone, with mangroves more limited to creek fringes and some patches in bays for much of the period. In the upper river from Subiaco Creek to Parramatta, there is no evidence for the presence of mangroves until the 1870s. Following settlement and increased sedimentation, inter-tidal mudflats expanded, mangroves colonised up river and out onto mudflats in bays in the latter part of the 19th century, followed by expansion into saltmarsh in the 20th century.”
It is only relatively recently that mangroves have really flourished along the river.
There is absolutely no doubt they were always present, tucked away in the tiny bays and inlets of what became known as Sydney Harbour but it was the mudflats and saltmarshes that dominated much of the estuary. These habitats, no doubt, provided a rich and productive habitat for shorebirds and other wildlife.
So, where to from here?
Globally, mangroves are a critical component of wetland ecosystems. There is little doubt of that, and little doubt that in many parts of the world, even here in Australia, they are under threat. But so is saltmarsh and, saltmarsh is far less likely to be given the chance to demonstrate the resilience that mangroves will to continued changed environmental conditions results from a rising sea level and surging urbanisation.
Not just saltmarsh but mudlfats too.
Coastal authorities are increasingly aware of the need to balance protection of mangrove forests and the benefits they provide but also the conservation of saltmarsh and mudflats that are so critical to shorebirds.
The reality is, there will need to be a program of mangrove culling to sustain conservation of saltmarsh habitat. You need a permit to remove mangrove seedlings but a seasonal program of removal would be greatly beneficial in stopped the spread of mangroves into saltmarsh habitats. Local authorities are incorporating mangrove removal programs in their local wetland rehabilitation programs.
Removing young seedlings is easy, you can pull them straight out of the wet mud. Wouldn’t take much to organise a team of volunteers to move through the local saltmarsh removing seedlings. Perhaps in Autumn when the migratory shorebirds have left and the mosquito populations aren’t so bad?
The idea that native vegetation should be actively removed from habitats sounds at odds with environmental conservation. However, we need to maintain our wetlands for our future generations and the next generations of birds, and fish and crustaceans that rely on them now where few other opportunities exist.
2 February is World Wetlands Day. Please get out into your local wetlands, or at least make a pledge to visit your nearby wetlands sometime soon.
Learn more about Australia’s amazing mangroves by dropping by MangroveWatch and picking up the excellent Australia’s Mangroves by Norm Duke. There is also an extremely useful text on Australian Saltmarshes that is essential.
Finally, check out one of the most extensive resources on urban wetland management, including estuarine wetlands, via the free eBook produced by the Sydney Olympic Park Authority titled “Workbook for Managing Urban Wetlands in Australia“. Read a brief article on our analysis of the use of this resource in the latest issue of Wetlands Australia, see “Insights from the use of an online wetland management resource” by Webb and Paul (pages 26-27).
What are you doing for World Wetlands Day? Join the conversation on Twitter!
Want to learn more about the amazing world of Australian mosquitoes? Check out “A Field Guide to Mosquitoes of Australia” out now through CSIRO Publishing. Over 200 pages containing a pictorial guide to almost 100 different mosquitoes along with tips on beating their bite and protecting your family from the health risks of mosquitoes. You can order online or through your favourite local bookstore or online retailer.