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‘We should be pretty concerned’: Study shows only 15% of coastal regions still intact

Image by Leonardo Felippi.

  • A new study has found that only 15.5% of the world’s coastal regions remain intact, while the majority of coastal areas are either highly or extremely impacted by human activities such as fishing, agriculture and development.
  • The nations with the largest swaths of undamaged coastlines included Canada, Russia and Greenland.
  • The researchers only had access to data up to 2013, so their findings are likely to be an underestimation.
  • The study also did not factor in the impacts of climate change, which would place 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. With coastal regions supporting a rich array of biodiversity and the livelihoods of billions of people, the authors say urgent action is needed to restore the land-sea interface and to protect what’s still undamaged.

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

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

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

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

“We should be pretty concerned,” Williams said. “Our paper is one of many [that shows] how we’re pushing further and further into Earth boundaries.”

Study co-author James Watson, also from the University of Queensland, said he was surprised how few places remained intact, 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 sub-Arctic and Arctic coastlines of Canada, Russia and Greenland. However, other research has shown that the coastlines in these parts of the world will be especially vulnerable to the dynamics of climate change.

Other nations that have large expanses of intact coastal areas include Chile, Australia, the United States, Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Falkland Islands, the Solomon Islands, and Brazil.

Williams said the findings are likely an underestimation since their data sets only extended to 2013, and the situation is probably much worse by now. Additionally, the researchers did not factor in climate change since the data set for terrestrial human pressures did not include climate change as a stressor.

“Everywhere is affected by climate change, right?” Williams said. “If we had included climate change across the whole analysis … the results would be a lot worse.”

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

“When we’re talking about conserving the intact regions, we’re not just saying protect and lock everybody out,” Williams said. “We’re saying conserve in a sustainable way.”

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

Citations:

Irrgang, A. M., Bendixen, M., Farquharson, L. M., Baranskaya, A. V., Erikson, L. H., Gibbs, A. E., … Jones, B. M. (2022). Drivers, dynamics and impacts of changing Arctic coasts. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, 3(1), 39-54. doi:10.1038/s43017-021-00232-1

Williams, B. A., 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. Image by Leonardo Felippi.