Ocean

Only 15% of the world’s coastlines remain in their natural state

Coastline view, with mountain in the background.

Human degradation ... almost three-quarters of the world’s population live near the sea. Image: UNSPLASH/Ian Schneider

Douglas Broom
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Ocean

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Only a sixth of the world’s coastlines remain in their natural state, a new study reveals.
  • Human activity has degraded coastal areas around the world.
  • But it’s not too late to protect pristine areas and restore those that have been damaged.

Wherever humans go in the world, they leave their mark. And nowhere is that more true than on our coastlines. So much so that only 15% of coastal areas are ecologically intact, according to a new study.

Almost three-quarters of the world’s population live within 50km of the sea. Researchers, led by a team from Queensland University, Australia, say that half of all coastal environments are heavily affected by human activity.

Even the 16.4% of coastal areas with formal environmental protection are not immune, with 43% of them subject to high human pressures. They add that “increasing well-resourced protected areas is a priority”.

The team say coastal regions are some of the most biodiverse and unique ecosystems on Earth, helping to sustain human life by providing fisheries, protecting against storms and capturing and storing carbon to slow climate change.

They warn that time is running out to safeguard and restore damaged coastal environments to benefit biodiversity and the people who rely on them for survival. “It is safe to say intact coastal regions are now rare,” they add.

Image of icebergs in the ocean.
Greenland is one of only a few regions with largely undamaged coastlines. Image: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

The researchers used data from 2013, the last year for which complete information is available, to map the impact of humans on coasts and coastal waters. They found that most of the ecologically intact areas were in Canada, Russia and Greenland.

Although the report says all nations must do more to preserve and restore the coastal regions within their borders, these three nations have a responsibility to “play a significant role by proactively protecting the last great intact coastal regions on Earth”.

In all, 12 nations contained coastal regions that were more than 80% intact. Coasts were also mostly intact (60%-80%) in Chile, Australia, the United States, Svalbard, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Falkland Islands, Solomon Islands and Brazil.

A map showing how intact coastal regions are around the world.
Intact coastal regions around the world are in decline. Image: Conservation Biology/University of Queensland

The most intact coasts had been saved by their location far off from urban and industrial development, according to the report. But what can be done for those areas that have already lost their pristine natural environment?

Understandably, the researchers say, approaches will vary according to specific local circumstances, but key themes emerge from the report. There needs to be action to eliminate pollutants that often originate well inland yet harm the coast as they enter the sea.

At the same time, action on climate change is vital to reduce the damage to coastal ecosystems in polar regions. Activities like illegal logging need to be stopped and work with indigenous people is key in helping them restore their coastal environments.

“To meet global conservation and sustainability goals, it is crucial that nations implement conservation activities to retain their remaining intact coastal regions,” say the researchers.

“It is now critical that the global community set specific restoration targets for coastal regions, which would support the United Nations’ Decade for Ecosystem Restoration efforts that are underway.”

In the Future of Nature and Business Report 2020, the World Economic Forum highlighted the serious cost of failing to protect biodiversity and wild habitats. Natural disasters in Asia Pacific, for example, affected 50 million people in 2018. “These disasters were exacerbated by environmental damage as the coastal ecosystems that could have protected the region from flooding and other extreme weather events had previously been destroyed.”

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