The difference between the ocean, rivers, wetlands and the roles they play in our ecosystem

The ocean, rivers, and wetlands all provide a myriad of interconnected goods and services that help us live and thrive.

By providing clean water for us to drink, food for us to eat, habitats for many species of plants and animals to live and grow, and helping to regulate the climate, these ecosystems are the lifeblood of our planet.

However, the ocean, rivers, and wetlands are all under threat. Pollution, climate change, invasive species, habitat destruction, and unsustainable use of these ecosystems’ resources all threaten their optimal functioning.

As these ecosystems, which are integral to our survival, are under threat, so too is our resilience, health and wellbeing at risk.

Taking action to protect and restore the ocean, rivers, and wetlands is therefore essential.

Below, we explore in more detail how each of these different ecosystems is important, what threats they face, and reasons to take action to safeguard them.

Why is a healthy ocean so important?

Covering around 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, the ocean is a vast network of ecosystems and habitats that play a critical role in keeping our planet in balance.

From coral reefs, salt marshes and kelp forests, healthy and functional ocean ecosystems support a wealth of marine biodiversity. In fact, the ocean is home to around 50 to 80 percent of all life on the planet.

Healthy ocean ecosystems provide habitat for a myriad of marine species of plants and animals, which interact to provide a range of services that support our health, well-being and survival.

For example, healthy and functioning ocean ecosystems allow phytoplankton to produce oxygen through photosynthesis that produces more than half of the oxygen in the world that we use to breathe.

Healthy ocean ecosystems also help to regulate the climate as they absorb heat and carbon dioxide, regulating temperatures and climate patterns.

And healthy ocean ecosystems also support the thousands of marine animals and plants that we rely on as a source of food and nutrition, as well as supporting many economies through tourism, wellbeing through their spiritual and social value, and supporting jobs and livelihoods around the world.

It is also this diversity of species that contributes to the intricate functioning and balance of ocean ecosystems, which is vital to supporting life.

How to get involved in protecting and restoring the ocean?

Given the many benefits of healthy, biodiverse and functional ocean ecosystems, it’s important that we take an active role in their protection and restoration.

There are many threats facing the ocean today: pollution, overfishing and unsustainable fishing, climate change, destruction of habitat, invasive species and noise.

At Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA), we empower people across Australia to take action to protect the ocean. 

To get involved in ocean conservation and restoration in Australia, you can volunteer or support our work at CVA through a donation.

Why do clean rivers matter?

Much like the ocean, river ecosystems also provide a range of goods and services that support people and communities on many levels.

Rivers provide water for us to drink, a source of irrigation for agriculture and farming, and an opportunity to travel and transport goods from one place to another.

Rivers also support many local economies through a range of related industries like tourism and transport. They’re also an important habitat for many species of fish, birds, and wildlife.

Clean and healthy rivers are able to function optimally, which includes being able to support biodiversity and maintain water quality.

Importantly, rivers also contribute to the maintenance of the water cycle, which maintains the balance of water in the atmosphere, and in and on the Earth as rain, water, and ice.

Rivers are intricately connected with the ocean, as rivers flow to the ocean, carrying with them nutrients, sediment and sadly also contaminants and pollution. In fact, it is estimated that 10 rivers in the world contribute about 90 percent of all ocean trash!

Rivers support a diverse range of species and are some of the most biodiverse habitats in the world. They help shape our landscapes and are of immense social and economic significance.

It’s no coincidence that many of the world’s biggest cities are located along or near rivers. From London (UK) which is located along the Thames River, Boston (USA) which is located along the Charles River, Paris (France) which is located along the Seine River, cities over the ages have relied on rivers for their social and economic value.

Rivers under threat: How to help protect and clean rivers

However, rivers around the world are under threat from pollution, the impacts of climate change, the introduction of invasive species, the over-harvesting of riverine species, damming and canalisation, and urban development.

These threats have all had impacts on rivers around the world, often upsetting the natural balance to such a degree that rivers are no longer able to provide their natural goods and services.

It is therefore important that we take steps to protect, conserve and restore river ecosystems.

We can do this by reducing the amount of pollution flowing into rivers, by managing extraction of water and water use more sustainably, by restoring degraded rivers, and by incorporating river conservation into land use planning and development planning.

At CVA, our Sea To Source campaign helps to reduce pollution of waterways and stop litter at its source.

What’s the importance of wetlands (and why do they need to be protected and restored)?

Wetlands are diverse and unique ecosystems that include salt marshes, swamps, estuaries, bogs, and mangroves.

Wetlands play an important role in protecting coasts from storms and flooding, maintaining water quality, filtering pollutants, sequestering carbon (thereby helping to combat climate change), and supporting biodiversity.

Despite their importance, wetlands are often seen as wastelands and have been rapidly developed and destroyed, with over half of all wetlands having disappeared since 1900.

It is critical that we protect and restore wetlands to help maintain planetary health and the flow of goods and services that wetlands provide.

Many organisations around the world are helping to protect and restore wetlands, including establishing protected areas and implementing sustainable land use management policies.

How to get involved in wetland restoration in Australia?

We’ve already lost more than 70 percent of wetlands in Australia, but Australia is also home to around 10 percent of the world’s coastal blue carbon wetlands and. Australia also boasts 67 Ramsar listed wetlands of significance.

It’s critically important that we take action and use nature-based solutions to protect and restore wetlands.

At CVA, our Revive Our Wetlands initiative is involved in protecting and restoring wetlands of significance through targeted conservation interventions. That includes Citizen Science events, Aboriginal connection to Country events and Habitat restoration activities.

Final Thoughts on the Importance of Rivers, Wetlands, and the Ocean

Rivers, wetlands, and the ocean are crucial to both ecological and human health. Their protection and restoration are of utmost importance because they provide us with countless life-sustaining goods and services.

Our environmental stewardship of these ecosystems also contributes to social justice and the sustainability of our economy.

Hopefully, after reading this article, you understand the differences between wetlands, rivers, and the ocean, and why they play such a vital role in the health of the planet.