FOUR WAYS WE BENEFIT FROM THE OCEAN: A Crash Course in Ecosystem Services
Part two of a multi-part series on ocean and marine environments through an economic lens.
Ecosystem — “An ecosystem is a large community of living organisms (plants, animals, and microbes) in a particular area. The living and physical components are linked together through nutrient cycles and energy flows. Ecosystems are of any size, but usually they are in particular places.”
The previous part in this series introduced ecosystem services as a major component of the “Blue Economy” and how we value the ocean. To reiterate, ecosystem services can be briefly described as, “the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems.” We expand on that discussion here by first introducing the relationship of ecosystem services to one of the most fundamental concepts in environmental economics and policy.
Natural capital encompasses all the resources in the environment that we stand to potentially gain from, which can be viewed as a sort of stock or “asset”, all these words analogous to their more common usage in every day financial planning. Natural capital therefore includes all the living (plants, animals, microbes) and non-living (earth, water, air) parts of ecosystems, and the processes that link them together. All of this under the notion that our “assets” are finite and can be lost forever if poorly managed…if the environment is poorly managed.
Ecosystem services are therefore the states and processes through which natural capital delivers goods and services to people. They can be perceived as value flows or chains growing out of nature like (and sometimes literally) crops growing from rich soil. They range from the tangible and easily monetizable, to the conceptual and personal. Listing the entire array of ecosystem services available to humanity would make the menu at a Greek diner seem sparse. But we can review the main four categories of ecosystem services under which each one of them can be filed.
1. Provisioning Services
Provisioning services are the ‘provision’ of physical goods produced by the environment. Examples include food (wild and agricultural), raw materials (e.g. timber), fresh water, and medicinal resources. Some ocean specific examples include wild and farmed seafood, shells and other items for jewelry, plant matter for wood (e.g. mangroves) or biofuels, and biomedical resources (e.g. horseshoe crab blood). Most of these products are tradable and hold a market value, making provisioning services perhaps the most direct form of ecosystem services, the easiest to value and often the focus of policy decision making for the environment. However, market prices do not always reflect the “true” value of something. For example, forage fish like anchovies and sardines are a critical food source for many forms of marine life including highly valuable species like tuna, and research demonstrates that their value in that capacity is much higher than the prices at which they are traded for human use and consumption.
2. Regulating Services
Regulating services work to ‘regulate’ the quality of the environment and environmental conditions, and encompass a variety of benefits that are often unseen yet we encounter on a routine basis. Examples include local climate and air quality regulation (e.g. forest cover influences rainfall), water quality management, carbon sequestration (ie. carbon removed from the atmosphere via biological processes), protection from natural disasters, soil quality and erosion mitigation, biological control (e.g. natural forms of pest management), and pollination. Coastal marine ecosystems like mangroves and marshes are especially important for regulating services, serving as barriers against coastal storms, sequestering large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere (up to 10x or more per unit area than tropical rainforests), removing pollutants that degrade water quality, and helping protect the coastline from erosion. These and other regulating services can have tremendous value, but they are less tangible than provisioning services, and thus are more difficult to evaluate and include in environmental policy and decision making. But efforts have been made to create a market for some regulating services including carbon sequestration via registered carbon offsets or credits. Another important distinction from provisioning services is that, rather than gaining value from extracting parts of the environment, regulating services can only benefit us when the ecosystems remain in place.
3. Cultural Services
Cultural services are exclusively non-material benefits that serve human well-being. This category includes the value of nature for tourism and recreation, as well as more conceptual and intrinsic forms like spiritual or aesthetic values. Examples can include the value of a clean and healthy ocean for beach goers, the value of a given species or place to an indigenous culture, and even the value of an animal like a polar bear to you as an individual that you may never encounter but value the existence of nonetheless. In some cases, like for tourism and recreation, the value of these services has the potential to be monetized, but in many cases they remain only conceptual or theoretical. They are also very subjective, the values potentially changing significantly from person to person. Yet for this reason, unbounded by the constraints of monetization and free markets, cultural services may be the most significant kinds of ecosystem service. They can allow anyone, anywhere, to hold value in forms of nature in their own backyard, or thousands of miles away in the most remote corners of the planet. The potential value is limitless.
4. Supporting Services
Supporting services is the one category that does not transfer value from natural capital to people directly. Rather, this category includes all the conditions and processes required for the other three categories of ecosystem services to exist. As a result, this category is especially broad and can include the production of oxygen in the atmosphere, the development of suitable habitat for plants and animals, nutrient cycling, and anything else critical to life. A specific example in a marine context could include primary production in the ocean, or the growth of phytoplankton which are often referred to as the “building blocks of the ocean”. Humans do not typically eat phytoplankton (though that may be changing), but they are the first link in the food chain (or web, more accurately) that supports fish and other seafood that we do eat. Not to mention, they produce half the oxygen on earth.
This was only a brief run down of the four types of ecosystem services that benefit society, and are critical to the “Blue Economy”. In upcoming pieces, we will address each one individually in far greater detail, including how they are analyzed and evaluated, their relative values, and how they play a role in policy decisions for the ocean. Until then, should you wish to learn more on your own, I’d refer you to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA).
Backed by the UN, the MEA brought over 1,300 scientists together from 2001–2005 to take the most comprehensive shot yet at evaluating the giant menu of ecosystem services around the world. In all its reports and volumes, it is self-described as, “a state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide…and the options to restore, conserve or enhance the sustainable use of ecosystems”. It even includes detailed local level assessments (e.g. ecosystem services in northern Wisconsin), if you want to see what’s happening ‘in your neck of the woods’.