For all their mystery, we know two things about the world’s oceans pretty well: One, they’re huge, and two, they do a lot for human beings (producing food, storing carbon, allowing travel and shipping, and scads of other good stuff). But just how much is a particular patch of healthy, functioning ocean real estate worth to humanity? And how can we decide on the places that are most important to protect, and how to balance the dozens of competing demands on the waters around us? This morning’s Marine Symposium saw a line-up of top marine ecologists grappling with how to start quantifying and valuing the “ecosystem services” performed by ocean environments.Among the highlights:
NOAA’s Anne Guerry is documenting the value Puget Sound provides to the 3.5 million people nearby from benefits like harvestable species (crabs, salmon, and shellfish, including the famous geoduck), carbon sequestration (to the tune of 150 metric tons of storage per hectare of eelgrass habitat), and protecting and stabilizing shorelines threatened by erosion. The economists who collaborate with scientists on these valuation studies hope that dollar values can be attached to many of these services to help in deciding how to manage coastal areas, but Guerry points out that some real human values — like the aesthetic worth of a beautiful coast, or the value of knowing that shorebirds can be seen swooping along the beaches — are more difficult to attach to a particular currency. (More on Guerry’s work here .)
Michael Fogarty of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center presented research emphasizing the need to manage the oceans with a big-picture perspective, rather than a piecemeal approach to saving individual populations or species. His research has shown that while we want to boost fish stocks to support sustainable fisheries in the historic fishing grounds of the Gulf of Maine, that goal may be in tension with another conservation aim: promoting the recovery of the right whale, which was hunted to near-extinction. His data suggest that commercially valuable fish like herring compete with the right whales for food (primarily copepods, everyone’s favorite plankters). To avoid unintended consequences of boosting one species at the expense of another, scientists need to look for these types of interactions and measure the trade-offs.
Sally Yozell of the Nature Conservancy described how bureaucracy is bogging down environmental protection, mentioning that there are at least 140 environmental and energy regulation laws at the federal level alone that try to address environmental problems on a sector-by-sector basis. Her current project involves mapping the huge coastal region from Canada’s Bay of Fundy down to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina to help managers integrate uses and protections throughout the region. Her team is incorporating data on the ocean floor and sediments, the distribution and abundance of over 1000 species of fish, invertebrates and birds, nearby human populations, shipping lanes, and fishing effort in the region into a giant database and creating maps that combine and overlay all that data. Ultimately, this will allow for informed decisions about how best to use ocean resources, and where the best places to focus uses like fishing and trapping, aquaculture, wind farms, and marine reserves are.
As Lewis Incze of the University of Souther Maine explained, researchers need to establish what various ocean regions are doing for us so that policymakers can work to maintain the ocean environment’s abilities to perform those vital functions and adapt to change and disturbance in the future. With 75% of human populations forecast to live in coastal regions by the end of this century, the oceans will need all the help they can get to stay healthy and productive.