Life amongst mangroves

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Last week I attended the Australian Mangrove and Saltmarsh Network Conference in Wollongong. This was an excellent opportunity to meet  those currently engaged in working with mangrove and saltmarsh communities.

Kerrylee Rogers and Colin Woodroffe from Wollongong University and their enthusiastic colleagues were responsible for the meeting. It brought together researchers from Australia and overseas to exchange information and ideas on a range of topics related to the sustainability of these communities under various pressures. Unfortunately I could not stay for the full proceedings. Anyone interested in the outcomes of the conference should contact Kerrylee.

This was the first mangrove conference I had attended since 1979! With one exception that conference was the end of nearly 20 years of on and off again field work in mangroves. That research was stimulated by a lecture I heard at Sydney University presented by Bill Macnae of South Africa in 1962. How often is it that one inspiring lecture can change a career? Later that year, I was given the opportunity to join a team from Louisiana State University to spend 6 months in Tabasco, Mexico, studying the relationship between mangrove communities and deltaic geomorphology. This work was sponsored by the US Navy Office of Naval Research which funded the Coastal Studies Institute of LSU.

In 1971, ONR again funded me to look at a very different mangrove world, that of the Ord River region of WA. Here I had the pleasure of working in the field for the first, but not the last time, with Don Wright. Don and I later visited the Purari delta of PNG to examine this complex hot, wet tropical system with the most magnificent undisturbed mangroves I have ever seen. During the 70s I also encountered mangroves and salt marshes in various parts of the world, and Australia, both as a member of an international working group on mangroves led by Sam Snedeker, and as a supervisor or co-supervisor of some fantastic mangrove scientists such as Marilyn Ball and Neil Saintilan. In the early 80s, I joined a team from ANU with Colin Woodroffe and John Chappell to work out the depositional history of the South Alligator River region. Here we confirmed the existence of the “Big Swamp”, that vast area of mangroves covering about 10 times more area of estuary than today between 7000 and 4000 years ago across northern Australia. Colin did a magnificent job in bringing this work together with many publications including one in Nature.

I feel very privileged to have had these numerous opportunities to study mangrove systems as a geographer and coastal geomorphologist.

Reflecting on these experiences last week made me appreciate more and more the importance of current research in both mangrove and saltmarsh communities. Back in 1979 we did not consider climate change as significant to warrant a mention in the future directions chapter of the proceedings published in 1982 (Barry Clough editor).

At the 2015 conference many papers highlighted research on impacts of sea level rise and other factors that confront these communities now and into the future. New techniques are available to monitor and model change and ecosystem dynamics. It is most encouraging to see how a new generation of students are embracing the science of mangrove and salt marsh ecology. I only hope that those funding research will see the need to sustain their efforts.

Words by Prof. Bruce Thom.