Mangrove forests are some of the most important ecosystems on our planet. Mangroves protect coastlines from the full impacts of waves and storm surges, provide nursery and feeding grounds for myriad species, and help mitigate climate change by storing three to five times more carbon in their soil per acre than other tropical forests.
In celebration of the International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem on July 26, The Pew Charitable Trusts caught up with Leandra Cho-Ricketts, a Belizean marine ecologist and co-founder of the University of Belize Environmental Research Institute (UB ERI). Cho-Ricketts is the administrative director of UB ERI and leads the coastal resilience program. She is a member on several national committees and networks, providing technical and scientific advice on marine resources management, and is working on a new Pew-funded research project focused on quantifying the carbon value of mangroves in Belize. The data from this project will be used to support Belize’s future climate commitments. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q. What spurred your interest in marine conservation, and specifically protections for mangroves and other coastal habitats?
A: As a Belizean with strong ties to the ocean, I have seen the urgent need for conservation and sustainable use of our marine resources, the greatest wealth our country has. The marine environment plays a central role in our economy, culture, and overall societal well-being. Coastal habitats like mangrove forests support livelihoods through fisheries and tourism and offer us protection from catastrophic weather events, but they are also some of the most threatened ecosystems on our planet. I wanted to study and protect mangroves to ensure that they remain intact to provide these important ecosystem services for generations of Belizeans to come.
Q. What research is the University of Belize undertaking to learn more about the country’s mangrove ecosystems?
A: Here at the University of Belize, mangrove research is multifaceted. We study the importance of mangroves as critical fish nursery areas, informing both conservation and fisheries management efforts. Our research focuses on the overall health and productivity of mangrove ecosystems and the connectivity between mangrove and seagrass habitats as corridors for fish migration. A new area of research that I am particularly excited about is better understanding the carbon value of mangroves, since Belize still retains a large proportion of its mangrove cover when compared with its regional neighbors. We are undertaking a collaborative research project with a team of international scientists to take soil cores in mangroves and quantify the carbon stored in these soils. This research can help inform Belize’s climate commitments as mangroves store up to five times more carbon in their soils per area than other tropical forests, and this carbon can remain there for centuries.
Q. So mangroves are a nature-based solution in the fight against climate change?
A: Yes. Aside from the carbon storage, mangrove forests provide other ecosystem services that make them especially valuable in a changing climate. For example, mangroves support food security and livelihoods, helping people better adapt to the impacts of climate change. Their dense root systems help stabilize coastlines, and along with the forest canopy can help buffer coastal communities from the full impact of storms. These properties make them an ideal tool for climate policies such as the Paris Agreement, where countries can include the protection of mangroves, along with emissions reductions, to help stem global temperature rise.
Q. How are mangroves faring worldwide? What can countries do to preserve and restore them?
A: The global rate of mangrove loss in the past few decades has been staggering. It’s estimated that half the world’s mangroves have been lost in the past 50 years. There is an urgent need to protect healthy mangrove forests and restore degraded ones. However, with strong policy in place, there is hope. In Belize, we are fortunate to still have large areas of healthy mangrove forests. Recently our national mangrove regulation was revised to better protect mangroves and the ecosystem services they provide. Determining the climate value of mangroves is another way to secure strong mangrove protections as these ecosystems, along with seagrass and salt marshes, are recognized for their measurable contribution to climate adaption and mitigation. As a signatory to the Paris Agreement, Belize can include the protection of mangroves in its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the agreement. By safeguarding mangroves in its NDC, Belize can protect these valuable ecosystems and the services they provide for local communities, as well as build resilience to climate change.