Coastal Management

Do you have to understand marine science to care about marine conservation? Wetland research says No.


Ware J, Callaway R (2019) Public perception of coastal habitat loss and habitat creation using artificial floating islands in the UK. PLoS ONE 14(10): e0224424.

Artificial island wetlands Baltimore USA, Don Woods.

In places where coastal ecosystems have been dramatically altered by human activity, green infrastructure projects like artificial wetlands, eelgrass plantings, and artificial floating islands provide novel opportunities to regain lost ecosystem goods and services.

In the Global Wetland Outlook report, the UN estimates that 64% of the world’s wetlands have been lost since the turn of the last century. Recent research suggests that 35% of wetlands were lost just over the period between 1970 and 2015. While not all of these wetlands were coastal, the loss of saltmarshes in urban coastal areas is particularly worrisome. Wetlands and other “blue carbon” ecosystems provide coastal areas with billions of dollars worth of flood mitigation, water quality control, and habitat creation services every year. With up to 40% of all species on earth depending on these wet areas for all or part of their lives, it’s no wonder that 25% of wetland plants and animals are now at risk of extinction. In response, scientists and coastal managers all over the world have been experimenting with engineered ecosystems; restoring degraded wetlands and even creating new coastal systems completely from scratch.

Despite this potential, the public are largely unaware of coastal eco-engineering initiatives. Public awareness and perception of artificial ecosystems are important because successful projects require input and buy-in from the people who may be affected by them – because they own property nearby, they make recreational or commercial use of the area, or maybe they are even responsible for funding restoration projects through taxes, compensation policies, or other wetland protection measures. Researchers Ware and Callaway from Swansea University set out to examine public perceptions around coastal eco-engineering projects in the United Kingdom, using artificial floating islands as a case study.

Artificial floating islands are interesting approaches to wetland creation in heavily urbanized spaces. In densely populated estuaries where little natural coastline persists, like London and New York, the lack of available real estate necessitates the need for floating wetland patches. Designs vary, but most floating islands (or AFIs) consist of a buoyant plastic base, a soil matrix, and aquatic plants sandwiched between the water and air. They’ve been deployed in urban bays and harbours as attempts at habitat creation and water quality treatment and are now sold commercially to municipalities and farmers looking for pre-assembled kits.

Ware and Callaway set up an online survey in the spring of 2019 asking people to pick factors they think are important influences on coastal health. Being careful not to give them too much background information, they asked them about coastal processes, their knowledge of eco-engineering, and their thoughts on AFIs specifically. They also asked their participants how far from the coast they lived.

77.8% of their 200 respondents considered plastic pollution to be an important factor affecting coastal health in the UK, while just 70.9% and 43.2% considered habitat loss and general urbanization to be important, respectively. Less than a third of respondents listed things like flooding and coastal development. Interestingly, there was no significant relationship between respondents perceptions on coastal health and their proximity to the ocean. 94.54% of respondents were broadly concerned with the loss of coastal ecosystems and 90.9% supported the use of AFIs as a novel restoration technique, despite not really knowing much about them.

Less than a third of study respondents were aware of habitat restoration or creation projects in their area, even those who lived close to the coast. When asked if they had any concerns about the use of AFIs specifically, 33% responded with thoughts about maintenance needs, impacts on recreational water use, coastal aesthetic, plastic pollution from the artificial island bases, and the potential of AFIs to act as a vector for invasive species.

So it seems that while public awareness of local coastal restoration projects is lacking and many people’s perceptions of threats to coastal health differ from expert consensus on what threats should be prioritized first, residents of the UK overwhelmingly value and support coastal conservation work.

The researchers credited popular documentaries like Plastic Ocean and Blue Planet II, which aired in recent years with great success, and coordinated public education campaigns for the emphasis of plastic pollution in so many respondents answers to the survey questions. Coastal development and flooding were not often listed as major coastal health threats, possibly indicating a lack of understanding of the secondary effects of land use change. Perceptions of flooding, in particular, have been shown in other studies to be linked to the socioeconomic status of the survey respondent. It’s possible that the participants in Ware and Carraway’s study undervalued the impact of coastal development on flooding because most or all had not experienced a serious flooding event (as opposed to similar work done in the southern United States, where lower income respondents reported having first hand experiences with flooding).

Man-made tidal wetland New York USA, T. Dorante.

Despite an apparent lack of cause and effect understanding, it’s clear from Ware and Callaway’s work that people do care about the health of coastal environments and they have opinions on how to best address restoration needs. This could be a great help for scientists hoping to achieve strategic restoration in a world losing its natural spaces and the services they provide at an alarming rate. For AFIs and similar man-made structures, researchers and coastal managers might want to take note of the public concerns revealed in Ware and Callaway’s study, which centred on the use of non-biodegradable plastic in the island structure.

Conserving vital coastal spaces, especially under the threats of continuing development and global climate change, will require public support and this can be achieved only though the development of environmental values. People seem to care about plastic pollution (at least in the UK), so how do we get them to care about flooding and other secondary effects of development without having them experience these hardships firsthand? Perhaps Sir Attenborough could do a series on the effects of coastal wetland loss.

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