Why Are Wetlands Important?
Wetlands are aquatic environments covered by freshwater, saltwater or a mixture of both — either permanently or seasonally. They’re full of unique types of vegetation that have adapted to thrive in wet soil as well as a variety of animal species who rely on the bountiful ecosystem for food and shelter. Birds often use wetlands as protective pit stops during long migrations to fuel up on seeds, berries and insects, while mammals such as beavers, otters, manatees, and even large predators like bobcats and tigers depend on wetlands year round for breeding and foraging. Unsurprisingly, wetlands also make up important habitats for fish, reptiles, amphibians and aquatic invertebrates.
Still, wetlands tend to remain undervalued, despite their importance. Between 1970 and 2015, about 35% of the world’s wetlands were lost, with annual rates of loss accelerating from the year 2000. What’s more, over 25% of wetland plants and animals are currently at risk of extinction.
History of Wetlands Conservation
In the past, wetlands were considered wastelands — vast sources of mosquito swarms, flies or unfamiliar smells — and generally a place to be avoided, drained or used as dumping grounds. In the United States, that negative mentality was challenged in 1990, when a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study found that more than half of the 221 million acres of wetlands in the lower 48 states had been destroyed since the 1770s. Between 1780 and 1980, the report indicated that 22 U.S. states had already lost 50% or more of their original wetlands.
At the same time, scientists and researchers were slowly beginning to find evidence that wetlands were actually productive and biologically diverse systems with the power to enhance water quality, filter pollution, control erosion, curb climate change, and provide habitats for at least one-third of all threatened and endangered species.
Like the United States, the rest of the world can attribute much of its wetland damage to human activity. Destruction or degradation from development, draining, damming to form more convenient bodies of water, increasing pollutants and diverting water flow can all alter wetland ecosystems. On a global scale, 89% of seasonal inland wetlands (which include marshes filled with herbaceous plants, swamps dominated by shrubs and wooded swamps) are unprotected. In Asia, where some of the world’s largest wetlands are contained, only 8% of wetlands are protected.
How Wetlands Help People and the Environment
We all know that every living thing on Earth needs water to survive. Wetlands — including marshes, mangroves, swamps, deltas and floodplains — provide many valuable benefits to people, communities, the environment and wildlife. Not only do they make up vital habitat for much of the commercially harvested fish we eat and maintain biodiversity, they also help protect coastal communities from storms, store carbon and support clean water.
Trees and plants remove carbon dioxide from the air as they live and grow, turning the carbon into carbohydrates and releasing the oxygen back out into the atmosphere. This carbon uptake reduces the rate at which carbon accumulates in the Earth’s atmosphere and subsequently the rate at which climate change occurs.
While the carbon that plants store in their leaves, roots and branches eventually falls to the ground and breaks down — releasing carbon back into the atmosphere — coastal wetlands have an additional advantage. Saltwater from the tide saturates the soil regularly, inhibiting the microbial breakdown of plant debris and trapping it instead in the soil. One study found that 50% to 90% of all coastal and ocean blue carbon storage occurs in the soil, rather than plants.
When it comes to tropical and subtropical wetlands, mangroves are king. These salt-loving trees are characterized by their tall roots that protrude into the soil to anchor them against strong tides. Like most wetland plants, mangroves serve as a physical barrier to the coast by taking the brunt of the crashing waves or the water running down a hill. As water flows into a wetland ecosystem, the plants bind and lock down the soil with their underground roots and slow the water down, preventing erosion and filtering or absorbing nutrient pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus.
In the Amazon, mangroves store 511 tons of carbon per hectare — about twice as much as the region’s rainforests! One of the world’s largest tropical wetlands, known as the Pantanal, spans 42 million acres across the heart of South America in Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay. More than 4,700 plant and animal species live there, but it’s also a major hub of economic activity from agriculture and tourism. In 2015, the economic activities of the states within the Pantanal contributed over $70 billion to their respective countries.
What’s Being Done to Protect and Restore Wetlands?
In 2021, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to establish World Wetlands Day each year on February 2 — although Contracting Parties of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an intergovernmental treaty designed to facilitate wetland conservation in 1971, have already been celebrating the holiday since 1997. World Wetlands Day helps raise global awareness about the importance of wetlands and encourages actions to conserve and restore them. Today, the treaty on which World Wetlands Day was based protects over 2,000 wetlands (making up 1 million square miles) and has been ratified by 170 countries.
Wetland restoration projects involve re-establishing and rebuilding a former wetland or rehabilitating and repairing the natural physical, chemical or biological functions of a degraded wetland. There’s also wetland protection, which is defined as removing a specific threat or otherwise preventing the decline of wetland conditions. The Environmental Protection Agency employs regulatory wetland restoration and protection that results from federal, state, tribal and local laws, as well as voluntary wetland restoration, which refers to activities not required by regulations but rather on-the-ground collaborations between nonprofits, local governments and industry. Because the focus can be more broad, many state and tribe projects rely on voluntary restoration and protection as a basis for their wetland programs.
At Halstead Meadow in Sequoia National Park, livestock grazing and highway construction in the early 1900s destroyed a sizable amount of wetland vegetation, altering the wetland’s essential ecosystem functions by lowering the water table and drying the soil. In 2007, park staff and volunteers installed erosion-control fabric and fallen tree material to help stabilize the former wetland site. The following spring, crews installed over 53,000 native wetland plants to establish the original vegetation and stabilize soils, and by 2015, the entire 21-acre site was functioning as it did before the damage.
National parks also play a large role in protecting wetlands, as many include vast areas of wetlands that were damaged or destroyed before the land became part of the national park system. Cape Cod National Seashore, Everglades National Park, Assateague Island National Seashore, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Denali National Park and Redwood National Park (just to name a few) all have active wetland restoration projects in play today.
Indonesia — which houses over a quarter of the world’s mangroves — lost or damaged much of its wetland ecosystems in the past due to coastal shrimp farms and logging. The country has implemented a restoration project with a long-term goal of rehabilitating 1.55 million acres of mangroves by 2024. In Africa, a 10-year program led by Wetlands International (a global nonprofit dedicated to the conservation and restoration of wetlands) is working to conserve or restore nearly 2.5 million acres of mangroves throughout the continent by 2027.