We love our coast in Australia – but we’re loving it to death. It’s time to turn things around, and tackle climate change at the same time.
An important way of tackling climate change is reducing the available carbon in the atmosphere. Planting and protecting vegetation is an effective way of removing that carbon, which most people think of as planting trees and preserving forests. But there’s evidence now from all around the world that a tremendous opportunity exists through protecting and conserving our coastal wetland vegetation areas – that its potential in trapping carbon is well above even terrestrial rainforests, and methods like carbon sequestration.
There’s a lot of excitement about this in my field of coastal ecology. We now know that utilising our marine vegetation species, such as mangroves and saltmarsh, is a phenomenal way of locking up what we call “blue” carbon.
A lot of my work now at James Cook University’s TropWATER Centre is involved with incentivising the funding pipelines that are looking at blue carbon, exploring the potential for private-public partnerships. Government funding is not going to be enough. Let’s say you’re a big company, and you want to offset carbon emissions. You have the money available – I can help link that funding to on-ground restoration work happening in coastal areas, connecting industry to community and traditional owner groups. It’s about creating these lines of connections from the big organisation right through to the scientists who work directly with community groups at a “grassroots” level – who know exactly where restoration is needed and backing it with the most effective scientific led methods.
There are so many benefits to this work, and not only with blue carbon. The biodiversity outcomes are so important. Our coastal wetland systems provide critical nursery habitat for a vast range of fish species and birds and other animals that we know and love. Without coastal wetlands, and having them in a healthy condition, we just won’t have the opportunity to see these species protected in the future. The loss of such species has a domino effect on ecosystems.
I consider myself a marine urban ecologist, looking at how we have changed the natural environment along coastal areas. We all love our coastal areas, and most of us live near them. But we are changing them very rapidly, not only in Australia, but right around the world. My interest is in how we go about having that balance between the lifestyles and livelihoods that we know and value on coastal areas, but still have conservation and environmental protection in place.
My interest in this area began in my early teenage years. I saw the changes happen before my eyes. I had the wonderful fortune to grow up on the Gold Coast, in south-east Queensland. We were very much an outdoor family, so every weekend I was on a boat, or we were camping somewhere in southeast Queensland, close to its beautiful waterways, and I just grew so much in love with that marine environment. Yet even between the time when I was quite young and then in my teens, we would go to our favourite fishing spots and see how these areas had changed, particularly through urban development, changing the shape and character of the floodplains. As a kid I saw it firsthand simply because we weren’t able to catch the same kinds of fish that we did when I was much younger – it all happened so fast.
It was then that I realised that this is something that we need to try to manage and solve. And that’s really what inspired me to pursue my work. Those early years really drove me to pursue that passion, and pursue knowledge.
For my PhD I actually looked at the trophic contribution – the food web contribution – that the canal estates in south-east Queensland provides the coastal fisheries. These kind of residential built waterways occur all around the world now, so I was very interested in how we’d urbanised that seascape, and what implications they had on fisheries and the coastal environment more broadly.
I worked for a while in local government trying to manage and monitor the health of estuaries and coastal areas. That was rewarding, but I had an absolute love for pursuing knowledge, and sharing and teaching that information, so I landed in the position I’m in now at JCU, teaching the future leaders, inspiring them to pursue careers in coastal wetland management in the same way I have. I also work in JCU’s Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research (TropWATER), which is really about applying science to provide real solutions for governments, communities and industries to achieve sustainable use of water resource systems and water ecosystems.
There are a number of projects we have going across Cape York and the Torres Strait, working with land and sea ranger groups. I find working with traditional owners particularly rewarding. They are the custodians of the land that we are on. I am learning a lot about their understanding of country, and I can share with them my Western science approach. I help provide the tools for rangers to collect scientific data that’s reliable and credible. And I get to visit some remote places that are so stunning – I always try to find time for a bit of fishing to try and refocus my excitement.
There are a million of reasons why we need to be focussing on restoring wetlands, whether it be blue carbon incentives or simply giving back crucial habitats to the native animals we adore. It’s a very broad area, and it’s going to require a lot of hard work, a lot of great science, and a lot of important management decisions. And we can work together on this.
Dr Nathan Waltham
Nathan is a freshwater ecologist and principal research officer at James Cook University’s TropWATER, with deep interest in coastal landscape ecology and urbanisation. Nathan has spent much of his career researching wetlands, and this year he will be working with farmers, Indigenous groups and industries to pilot bold new wetland restoration projects.