Beyond its undeniable aesthetic and recreational value, coastal and ocean areas provide important environmental goods and services to the population. Food production, stabilization of the shoreline, regulation of hydrology and climate, carbon dioxide sequestration and and oxygen production are a few examples of the most important contributions (UNDP et al., 2000; Levin and Lubchenco, 2008). These areas also possess an enormous biological capital: from about 82 recognized phyla, about 60 live in marine habitats, in contrast with the 40 phyla that live both in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems (Groombridge and Jenkins, 2002). Only with regard to animals, oceans and coastal areas are home to 36 of the 37 phyla recognized, who live in ecosystems ranging from coral reefs and seagrass communities to mangroves, coastal lagoons and estuaries.
Goods and services provided by coastal and ocean areas have contributed to make of these zones of considerable social and economic importance. An estimated 60% of the world’s human population lives in the coastal strip between the shoreline and 60 km inland (Ramsar, 2007). However, its relentless economic and social activity has led to a rapid population growth and development, which demands increasing amounts of food, water, energy and infrastructure, all this at the expense of adverse impacts on ecosystems. It is recognized that the major threats to coastal and ocean biodiversity, at the genetic, species and ecosystems levels, are habitat disruption, overexploitation of natural resources, water pollution and eutrophication, mariculture, introduction of exotic species, tourism and global climate change (EEA, 2003; PNUMA, 2003; Heip et al., 2009).
The present work defines as coastal ecosystems those located within the intertidal and benthic zones, including estuaries, sea grass communities and coral reefs. Open ocean ecosystems are also considered. Although mangroves constitute the transition between terrestrial and marine ecosystems, they were included in the Terrestrial Ecosystems section. Importantly, this chapter includes a special section dealing with an ecosystem which, for its biological richness, ecological importance and specific issues deserves special attention: coral reefs.
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