In this paper we take a critical look at...
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Ecosystem services are produced by healthy, well-functioning environments and provide great benefit to humans worldwide. Such services include provisioning of food and water resources, as well as regulating and supporting functions such as flood control, waste management, water balance, and climate regulation. Human reliance on these ecosystem services is fundamental – although we rarely recognize the value of ecosystem services until they are lost.
The oceans provide a great many critical but undervalued ecosystem services, supporting not only coastal inhabitants but all life on the planet. For example, wetlands maintain hydrological balances, recharge freshwater aquifers, prevent erosion, and buffer land from storms.
MARES is initially focusing on the following 5 key services that are currently at risk around the world:
Marshes and other coastal wetlands naturally buffer land from storms and prevent shoreline erosion, highlighted particularly in recent natural disasters. Besides buffering from storms and erosion, healthy coastal habitats also serve to maintain beaches by continually depositing back the sand and sediments removed by natural erosional processes. Commercial interests, such as private landowners, the tourism sector, and the insurance industry, all have much to gain by investing in and protecting coastal habitats and reducing their exposure to risk.
The fisheries management community has long recognized the value of fish nursery areas; however, since these are rarely the sites of fisheries harvest, i.e., not typically fishing grounds themselves, it has been difficult to get the sector involved with their protection. Fishing interests are keen to look for ways to enhance or maintain production, and protection of nursery habitat provides a nexus for fishing and conservation interests to come together. There is great potential to target private sector investment in the protection of fish nursery habitat in those developed and developing countries with robust commercial fisheries.
Emerging science is pointing to the great potential of coastal habitats, such as mangroves, sea grass beds, and salt marshes, in capturing carbon and storing it, thereby mitigating further climate change. For example, mangroves in certain environments can sequester six times more carbon in soils than tropical forests. Since carbon markets already exist, the stage is set for the development of market-based incentives for protecting this ecosystem service in coastal environments.
Water quality is both a public health issue and a broader economic one, especially in many developing countries. Lowered water quality in places like coral reef and beach environments affects livelihoods such as fishing and tourism as well as human health. It is especially suitable for the development of markets, building upon the tried and true examples of trading practices in the freshwater market with full private sector support and enormous growth potential. Water quality standards already exist in many coastal countries, so the conditions exist to allow development interests upriver and along the coast to mitigate and trade credits in water quality.
Marine Biodiversity is a valuable service in its own right and also acts to support the marine productivity upon which so many communities and nations depend. ‘Species banking’ and biodiversity offsets are two tool sets, whereby development in one location is exchanged for protection, i.e. ‘banking’ or offsets, of the same species or community at another comparable habitat. Where strong regulatory environment for the protection of marine and coastal species exists, species banking has great potential. As regulation for coastal and offshore development emerges, these two strategies will become even more important for marine conservation.
Photo credits: Alexander Heitkamp, Tundi Agardy, and Donna Adenine