What’s the Ocean Worth...in Dollars?

An orange sunset over the ocean.
(© John Hilliard)

Tsukiji Fish Market’s first auction of 2016 made headlines when a 440lb (200kg) endangered bluefin tuna sold for 14 million yen—about 117,283 U.S. dollars. In 2013 a single fish was sold for $1.76 million dollars (the highest price so far). Demand for the delicacy has led to high price tags both in Japan and around the world.

In this case, an economic market exists where tuna can be bought and sold for a price that is (eventually) agreed upon. But some parts of nature are not bought and sold on markets. In such cases, ecosystem valuation allows researchers to perform the difficult and sometimes controversial task of putting a “price tag” on nature.

The very principle of ecosystem valuation sounds dubious. We need nature to survive, after all. Doesn’t that make it priceless?

But consider this application of ecosystem valuation. Results of a study conducted in 2011 revealed that a single reef shark in Palau has a lifetime value of nearly 2 million U.S. dollars when it remains in the water, based on the amount of money that the most popular dive sites bring in through tourism. This grossly exceeds the $108 market value of an individual shark sold for its fins used in the Chinese delicacy shark fin soup. Diving tourism, and the sharks that divers come to see, represents about 8 percent of Palau’s GDP. This is an important calculation, because overfishing sharks for their fins is one of the biggest threats to sharks globally.

The Pew Charitable Trusts

A grey reef sharks swims lazily through Palau's clear blue water.

In this instance, determining the economic value of a living shark is relatively easy because tourists come to see sharks and the value of the tourism industry to Palau can be calculated. But determining an ecosystem’s dollar value isn’t always so straightforward. 

Two of the most common ways to measure ecosystem value are through market and non-market valuation. Market techniques are based on actual prices—for example, the price of a permit to dive in a healthy coral reef or the price of restoring an ecosystem after an environmental disaster.

Conversely, non-market techniques tackle the tricky situation of valuing ecosystem benefits that don’t have a specific price. In this case, economists will often measure value with a survey by asking people about their hypothetical willingness to pay for something. They can also study an individual’s purchasing habits—a researcher might determine how much a person would pay for a panoramic view of the ocean near their house by looking at home prices in a given neighborhood, for instance.

In short, ecosystem valuation offers a window into understanding the public’s priorities. By comparing the costs and benefits of conservation versus exploitation, it can help find a balance that serves the majority.

Let’s consider two evolving stories that capture how humans make the complex decision to conserve or exploit resources in the Sea of Cortez and on the deep ocean floor—a process that has been relatively straightforward for one ecosystem, and extremely difficult for the other. 

Mangrove Treasure Troves

By 1999, the Sea of Cortez faced a big problem. The coastal jewel nestled between Baja California and the Mexican mainland had lost one of its most important assets: big fish. Bewitched by the seascape, Jacques Cousteau famously christened the Sea of Cortez “the aquarium of the world” while filming a natural history documentary there just decades earlier. But years of unchecked fishing plundered the gulf of its rich wildlife leaving only a vestige of its former bounty.

“After more than 1,000 dives, after counting thousands of fish and invertebrates, the largest species I saw was a grouper…that never [surpassed] 80 cm (2.6 feet),” explains Dr. Octavio Aburto-Oropeza who first began frequenting the region in 1993. “I realized I wasn’t studying natural reefs.”

Over the last two decades, Aburto-Oropeza and his team employed several tactics to revive the gulf, including community outreach, ecological monitoring and mangrove forest protection. In 2006, the research team published a study positively linking the amount of fish caught with local abundance of mangroves, identifying it as a cornerstone of the local economy. 

Mangrove roots serve as nurseries for fish and crab species that account for 32 percent of small-scale fisheries catch in the region. These fisheries earn about $37,500 per hectare of mangrove annually—a staggering incentive to protect mangrove forests and subsequently maintain economic and food security in the area. 

As in Palau, healthy fish populations in the Gulf of California also support tourism. Since 1999, the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, Baja’s only no-take marine reserve, has increased its fish population by 460 percent after the nearby 120-person town lobbied their government to turn the reef into a protected space. By 2009, top predators like sharks and large groupers increased tenfold. Some of these fish leave the protection of the park and support local fishers. But even more important is the small-scale eco-tourism operation that is supported by the abundance of fish, offering economic resilience far beyond the unsustainable fishing practices of the past. 

WWF International

World Heritage Biosphere Reserve from Gulf Program on Vimeo.


Deep-sea: The Final Frontier

Relatively untouched, the bottom of the ocean is rich with natural resources and teeming with creatures near life-giving hydrothermal vents and seeps. Once too expensive to reach, the deep-sea is now attracting attention from mining companies, commercial fisheries and other industries that threaten to degrade the ecosystem if left unregulated.

“Policy makers are working out how to proceed in the deep sea right now,” explains Ph.D. student Jennifer Le when asked about the status of deep seabed mining. 

Le and her colleagues at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography are identifying what services humans rely on from the deep sea that may become permanently damaged with too much extraction, as well as the dollar value of those “services”. 

One of these benefits is keeping atmospheric carbon trapped in deep-sea sediments for millions of years. As humans face an exponential increase of carbon in the atmosphere due to use of fossil fuels, more and more value is placed on keeping extra carbon locked up in the seafloor.  

Le and fellow scientists are considering how much it would cost to replace this natural service with other carbon-sequestering alternatives; a “Plan B” would likely be very complicated with limited success. In many cases, the deep sea cannot realistically be fully restored after heavy extraction. The cost to repair the system would be astronomical, and the loss of this and other crucial ecosystem services could potentially be irreversible.

Time is also precious. Although there are many studies devoted to the valuation of environmental goods and services, hardly any focus on the deep sea. Scientists simply don’t know enough about the bottom of the ocean to understand how extractive activities like deep-sea fishing or mining might affect it in the long run. 

Fortunately, commercial mining has not yet begun, giving the International Seabed Authority (ISA) the unique opportunity to create a system for evaluating impacts on ecosystem services before serious environmental problems arise. 

“This gives regulators and us as a society a chance to put in protections before we start exploiting a lot of these resources,” says Le. “It’s probably one of the last opportunities we have on Earth to do so.”

July 2016