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Plastic coasts and corals?

Alicia Medina Villanueva & Steven Lutz

Story by Blue Forests Project September 8th, 2017

Tourist advertising is full of pictures of pristine coastlines, mangrove forests and coral reefs. At first glance, these areas appear as a paradise for marine and coastal creatures – and travellers who want to visit them.

Unfortunately, what the photos don’t show are the waves of plastic bags and other debris that appear on the shores of many countries that advertise their beautiful coastlines. Plastic pollution has become a worldwide problem and tourists are taking note.

Sanur, Bali - Staff at a mangrove boardwalk, a tourist attraction in Bali, clear plastic debris from the water (photo credit: Steven Lutz)

Mangrove boardwalks connect people and allow access to beautiful ecosystems hidden by tangled roots and branches. These picturesque pathways wind through mangrove forests allowing the public to view fish, invertebrates, migratory wading birds and other life that call these forests home. These structures are important attractions for coastal tourism in many countries.

Unfortunately, if you visit the mangrove boardwalk at Sanur, on the island of Bali, you can experience another side to the mangrove forest - a habitat clogged and degraded by plastic pollution. The pollution problem is so bad that local people are being employed to clean debris from around the viewing areas. During the incoming tide, plastic bags float into the forest and you wonder if this is a never-ending cycle of pollution and clean up.

Tourists are also noticing the pollution problem in the Sanur mangroves. On TripAdvisor, 27% of tourist’s rate the boardwalk as "terrible" and pollution is highlighted in on-line comments; “Rubbish everywhere - I had been so excited when I found out that you're able to actually visit and walk through the mangrove forest. Sadly everything is full of rubbish, plastic bags cover everything and the smell is awful…” (Sanur Mangrove Information Centre TripAdvisor comment, 24 November, 2016).

Sanur, Bali - Plastic pollution affects the experience of visiting the mangrove boardwalk (photo credit: Steven Lutz)

Similarly, when snorkelling on a coral reef off Amed, located on the other side of Bali from Sanur, it is common to find oneself cutting a swath through floating plastic debris while trying to view the colourful corals and fish. The floating plastic isn’t just ugly - it can become home to jellyfish and other stinging marine life, and as one of the authors experienced first-hand while taking the following photograph; provide an unwelcome experience to those swimming on the surface.

Amed, Bali - Plastic pollution impacts the snorkelling experience of the shallow coral reefs (photo credit: Steven Lutz)

Plastic pollution and mangroves

The fact is that Bali is not the only place facing this problem. And clean mangrove forests not only benefit tourists. They are important to coastal communities because they protect shorelines against storms, tsunamis or typhoons. They also help filter local waters and providing breeding grounds for a variety of marine species including those of commercial value such as mud crabs, molluscs and prawns. Mangrove forests also have a global role to play in reducing the effects of climate change by storing and sequestering vast amounts of carbon in their biomass and sediments.

Unfortunately, these benefits are being affected by plastic debris, which threatens the livelihoods of many communities who depend on tourism and the other benefits mangroves support, such as local fisheries. According to Kawalekar, NOAA, and Bulow and Ferdinand, pollution in mangrove and other marine and coastal ecosystems can cause a variety of environmental, economic and health effects, including:

Bay of Panama, Panama - Marine debris can physically injure coastal vegetation and degrade coastal habitats (photo credit: Steven Lutz)

At Sanur, action is being taken to clean the mangroves from pollution, however the effort may be futile without addressing the source of the pollution. Just last week, Kenya enacted the world’s toughest law aimed at reducing plastic pollution and made the sale or use of plastic bags subject to imprisonment of up to four years or fines of $40,000 (£31,000). In reporting the story, the British newspaper The Guardian, linked such pollution to affects on the marine environment:

Many bags drift into the ocean, strangling turtles, suffocating seabirds and filling the stomachs of dolphins and whales with waste until they die of starvation. “If we continue like this, by 2050, we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish,” said Habib El-Habr, an expert on marine litter working with the UN environment programme in Kenya.

- The Guardian, 28 August, 2017

In contrast with Kenya's government driven plastic bag ban, in Bali there has been a civil society driven initiative working to restrict the use of plastic bags across the Indonesian island. In the view of Bali’s mounting garbage problem, Bye Bye Plastic Bags - is a social initiative driven by children, which started a campaign in 2013 to obtain one million signatures in order to reach out to the Governor of Bali, Made Mangku Pastika, and convince him to introduce a ban on plastic bags. The campaign was successful and in 2015 the government of the island confirmed that Bali will be plastic- bag- free by 2018.

Perhaps efforts such as these could provide lessons for the global community in tackling costal pollution and supporting healthy, productive and clean ecosystems for tourists and communities to experience?

Kibera, Nairobi - Children play on mounds of plastic bags & rubbish in the Kibera slum, Africa's largest slum (photo credit: Steven Lutz)
Kibera, Nairobi - Mounds of plastic illustrate the scope of the global pollution problem (photo credit: Rob Barnes)