Coastal Infrastructure: Disrupting Aquatic Ecosystems & Causing Coastal Habitat Loss

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

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Have you ever had a vacation, currently live, or want to relocate to the coast?

It is estimated that 40% of the world’s population live within 100 km of the coast.

Tourism is the largest and fastest-growing economic sector, providing at least 200 million jobs in the world. As populations and reef-based tourism increases, there is increased pressure on the coastal ecosystem due to the demand for more infrastructure development.

@Rumana S What may look like paradise behind those palm trees to you, can be a nightmare for marine life.

It is now estimated 100% of baby sea turtles have plastic in their stomachs.

Coastal tourism increases pollution, waste, and reduces water availability to the local population. With a high demand for hotels, other developments such as airports and marinas are also built. Piers and pontoon structures have been built directly on top of coral reef and seagrass beds.

Sea turtles nest on beaches. Many of these nesting sites have been destroyed by tourists and from building new roads and hotel resorts.

In addition to this, coastal buildings, especially hotel lights, bars, and streetlights, all affect the success of sea turtles reaching the sea after hatching. They often hatch at night and naturally follow the light of the moon, into the ocean, however with man-made structures emitting light, they often get confused and do not make it into the sea.

@Vincent Wright

Coral reefs are vital underwater ecosystems made up of thin calcium carbonate layers. They are natural sea defences and are home to an estimated 25% of all marine life. Unfortunately, they are under great threat. These threats such as climate change and ocean acidification are occurring, but now with the increase in tourism, coastal developments have been added to the list.

Rapid and uncontrolled development in coastal areas increases the risk of environmental degradation. The building of infrastructure itself is destructive. During construction, acoustic vibrations disturb both fish and marine mammals. This occurs due to the blasting and drilling of the land.

Marine mammals such as whales and dolphins rely on echolocation for communication, and when anthropogenic vibrations occur, it causes interference. In addition to this, bird species are affected by noise and the presence of builders and machines during construction operations. This can affect their migration patterns, which is vital for them to survive.

Some coastal buildings with insufficient waste removal, dump their sewage and other waste directly into the ocean. This affects the oxygen content, potentially leading to oxygen toxicity and algal blooms, which can be lethal to marine organisms.

Sedimentation from eroded material during construction finds its way from land into the sea. This can make it difficult for sunlight to penetrate the top layers of the water.

Photosynthesising organisms such as phytoplankton, algae and corals are affected. This can cause a trophic cascade due to phytoplankton being the foundation of the oceanic food chain. If you remove them, it causes the whole ecosystem to be affected.

The removal of mangroves greatly impacts capture fisheries and aquaculture. Inshore fisheries depend on mangroves as nurseries and feeding areas.

These specialised areas are home to not only marine species but also terrestrial species. Removing mangroves causes fragmentation, making them unable to migrate from one area to another.

It is not just building, destroying aquatic ecosystems, but tourists themselves. Some tourists are known to touch and walk on coral reefs, directly damaging them. Coral reefs are gifts to us, but unfortunately, we give them gifts ourselves, plastic.

Our ocean has started to become an underwater rubbish/garbage dump. Plastics started to accumulate in the oceans in the 1960s, and now 6.3 billion tons do not end up in recycling centres.

So Where Do They Go?

Unfortunately, the ocean.

The Pacific Gyre has now been smothered in 1.6 million tonnes of rubbish, marine researcher Charles Moor named it the Great Pacific Garbage Patch due to its size when he first discovered it in 1997. It is equivalent if you were to put France, Germany, and Spain together.


Per year, it is estimated that plastic pollution kills millions of marine organisms, and in the long-term could potentially go extinct.

Marine mammals are becoming stranded worldwide. Animal dissections have shown that some fatalities are due to the ingestion of plastics.

When ingested, their bodies cannot remove these foreign objects, causing their stomach to feel full and eventually starve due to insufficient food. It is not just ingestion-starvation, but also strangulation and drowning from plastic pollution.

Over time, larger plastics break down into smaller pieces called microplastics. these enter the food chain and often end up in our favourite seafood dish. Filter-feeding organisms such as mussels have been found to contain small particles of plastic due to the long process to break them down.

@Antoine Giret Most plastics from Europe and America are sent overseas, where it is often dumped and not downcycled. These countries are paid to take the recycled waste, yet they do not always have the required facilities to sustainably eliminate them.

As terrible as this is, tourism does not look like it will be hitting the break, or even slowing down. However, there are ways to reduce the destruction!


We Can:

- Educate ourselves as tourists

- Donate or volunteer to marine organisations that help, for example building artificial reefs

- Reduce the use of single-use plastics (there are many re-usable water bottles on the market now)

- Conserve water (turn the tap off when brushing teeth)

- Do not touch or stand on the coral reef

- Use reef/environment-friendly sunscreen

- Volunteer at local beach cleans


Written by Darby Bonner

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