Directorate-General for Research & Innovation logo Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission logo
Receive our editor’s picks

The value of the sea can’t just be measured by markets

Dr Tim O'Higgins is coordinator of the KnowSeas project, led by the Scottish Association for Marine Science. © SAMS
Dr Tim O'Higgins is coordinator of the KnowSeas project, led by the Scottish Association for Marine Science. © SAMS

Dr Tim O'Higgins, coordinator of the EU-funded KnowSeas project, based in Oban, Scotland, argues that implementation of the EU Integrated Maritime Policy will require a delicate balance between the use of Europe’s seas and conservation of the maritime ecosystem.

‘A poor man wants the oyster, a rich man wants the pearl…’ The words of Elvis Presley, though more famous 50 years ago, are no less resonant today. Values given to resources from the marine environment differ, and incorporating different types of values into management of the seas is vital to sustainability.

In Europe, as Member States struggle to maintain prosperity and re-establish their economies, the Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP) sets out a vision of ‘Blue Growth’ to support economic improvement in maritime sectors. At the same time, the environmental component of the policy, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, mandates by law that Good Environmental Status be achieved or maintained in Europe’s Seas by 2020.

Natural capital

The stakes are high. From the extraction of oil and gas, to the freight transport which underpins European international trade; maritime sectors are of huge economic significance. But not all of the value of the marine environment is measured by markets. The seas generate other benefits, sometimes called ecosystem services or natural capital. For example, the aesthetic conditions which support recreation, such as clear water, beautiful natural scenery, and clean beaches, are valuable in terms of the enjoyment they provide to people, but are not for sale; in addition the oceans perform fundamental biogeochemical processes which regulate the climate and atmosphere and provide the living conditions necessary for all human activities to take place.Estimates of benefits generated by European seas for some economic sectors and ecosystem services (2010) calculated as part of the KnowSeas project. Dark shades indicate minimum values paler shades represent upper estimates (values should not be aggregate as they were generated using different valuation techniques).  © SAMSEstimates of benefits generated by European seas for some economic sectors and ecosystem services (2010) calculated as part of the KnowSeas project. Dark shades indicate minimum values paler shades represent upper estimates (values should not be aggregate as they were generated using different valuation techniques). © SAMS

The accompanying graphic shows estimates of the economic worth of marine sectors and ecosystem services valued as part of the KnowSeas project. Altering the marine environment can reduce these stocks of natural capital and lessen their capacity to generate ecosystem services. The degree to which we can exploit marine ecosystems without depleting natural capital defines the limits of sustainability.

Recognising the value of the environment and of the ecosystem services it provides when implementing the integrated policy is therefore hugely important. In scope and scale this is an enormous undertaking. European marine territory is vast - covering 6.6 million square km - and diverse both in terms of the ecology within it and the social and cultural norms of the people surrounding it. From the crowded beaches and crystal waters of the Mediterranean to the deep remote fjords of the North Atlantic, marine managers face the same challenge, that of balancing use and conservation.

Trade-offs

Aligning these twin goals requires an understanding of the trade-offs between exploitation and ecosystem service supply. European society places pressures on the seas through fishing, agriculture and shipping amongst other activities. These pressures result in an alarming list of environmental problems: collapsing fish stocks, oxygen depletion and ocean acidification are just a few. The damage done to oceans in turn diminishes their capacity to supply ecosystem services on which all human activities - economic and social - ultimately rely. For example, ocean acidification, caused by emissions of carbon dioxide may destroy cold water coral reefs in the North East Atlantic, eliminating essential fish habitat - and production of commercially important species - as well as reducing biodiversity and the potential for the discovery of new genetic resources with pharmaceutical worth.

‘The degree to which we can exploit marine ecosystems without depleting natural capital defines the limits of sustainability.’

Dr Tim O'Higgins, KnowSeas project coordinator

Understanding how best to manage the marine environment to maintain ecosystem services, as well as support economic development, has been the focus of the KnowSeas project over the past four years. The project, led by the Scottish Association for Marine Science, has brought together a multidisciplinary team of ecologists, economists and social scientists from 33 academic partners in 16 different countries. The work has taken a systems approach, aiming to support implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive by developing a coherent conceptual approach as well as practical tools for marine managers. The project output tools and reports are available on the Internet.

With jobs and economic growth currently top priority on most national agendas, there is a danger that the trade-offs between economic profit and ecological loss will be ignored. The harsh reality is that ecosystem services are unlikely to be fully considered in management and that our stocks of natural capital may continue to be depleted further in the coming years. The values we place today on exploitation and conservation of the marine environment will shape the future long after the 2020 target for Good Environmental Status. If we chose to deplete our natural capital now for the sake of economic growth we endanger the very ecosystems on which our societies depend for life.

More info