By Tundi Agardy, Contributing Editor, MEAM. Email:

Knowing what the oceans do for us today or could do for us in the future is essential to being able to set in motion marine management that will maintain these values over time. But while the potential yield of fish stocks or the touristic value of beaches is fairly easy to quantify or model, other ecosystem services are difficult even to define, let alone assess. And even when we do manage to produce comprehensive assessments of how ecosystem function and what benefits they provide, we trip up on communicating these values to the public and decision-makers.

Recently a group of Erasmus Mundus Maritime Spatial Planning masters students (P.O. Bonsu, S. Mahadeo, E. Menini, and B. Minuzzi Schemes) presented a paper proposing an innovative way of looking at ecosystem services. In describing the benefits that nature offers humanity in the northern Adriatic, they delved into how to assess cultural services, and how to define and quantify cultural heritage and the ecosystem services that support it.

The students put forth a simple yet elegant way to frame how ecosystems offer benefits to humans in the form of ecosystem services – the idea of ecosystems as either ‘Providers’ or ‘Protectors’. Ecosystems provide goods (‘Provisioning Services’ in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment lexicon), but they also provide ecosystem values that are not goods – aesthetically pleasing landscapes and seascapes, biodiversity that enriches our experiences in nature, awesome wildlife that serve as an inspiration for the arts, etc. At the same time, ecosystems function to protect these and other values through those ecosystem services that the Millennium Assessment awkwardly termed ‘Supporting’ and ‘Regulating’ Services.

It is therefore possible to evaluate how ecosystems stabilize shorelines to protect our seascapes, how they filter coastal water to improve the quality of water in which we bathe and frolic, and how they promote nutrient cycling to support myriad species that we admire and build livelihoods around. These are all tied to ecological functions that indeed either support or regulate communities of organisms, but in essence these complicated functions can also be seen as protecting the many ways that humans benefit from healthy oceans and coasts.

Seeing the oceans as Protectors, not just Providers

This simple precept got me thinking, and I had two immediate reactions. First, I was embarrassed and annoyed that I hadn’t thought of this myself.

My second thought was that it might just be that many marine management failures have to do with framing marine problems in too narrow a way. When we focus primarily on ecosystems as Providers, we concentrate on their giving, and hence, our taking. With that focus we set ourselves up for competition, for policies influenced by lobbying and money and power, and ultimately on taking what is being provided before the next person or company or nation snatches it away. A recent paper by Smith et al. (2017) describes how maximizing one ecosystem service can and often does degrade other ecosystem services.

It doesn't have to be this way. Imagine a world in which the decision makers and the public get it – and government policy and industry regulations are therefore crafted to not only allow sustainable ocean use, but also to keep the ocean ecosystems functioning as Protectors. Inevitably, this would lead marine management towards ecosystem-based management, with effective management benefitting many instead of just a few.

Steps we can take

A pipe dream? Well, maybe. These days it can’t hurt to dream…. But there are concrete steps that could be taken to actively manage oceans so that they can continue to Provide and Protect.

One concrete step is to better communicate how healthy oceans benefit all of us, boosting out national economies, providing livelihood opportunities, and enriching us in countless other ways. We need to reach broader audiences than those who read MEAM and already understand. Luckily young people are equipped to do this with their parsimonious communications. New technological tools and social media could allow strong messages to be broadcast widely, to strengthen the worldwide culture of sustainability and the conservation ethic that is at its core.

Yet another step might be to change the conversation that drives marine spatial planning – admittedly only one approach to marine management, but one which lays the groundwork for integrated management at potentially large geographic scales. A recent paper by McGowan et al. (2018) illustrates what is widely viewed as a dichotomy, discussing marine spatial planning and zoning as either optimizing space-sharing or space-sparing – in other words, use versus conservation. But we could radically transform marine spatial planning if we were to assume that space-sparing is necessary for sustainable space-sharing – in other words, that taking what nature provides us needs to be balanced by refraining from taking, in order to allow Nature as Protector to nourish us all.

And finally, a critical step to ensuring that the oceans can continue to provide and protect has to do with our coming to terms with all the ways the oceans sustain us. We should invest in improving our assessments of the spaces and sectors we attempt to manage – aiming for a full understanding of all the benefits oceans provide. Armed with that knowledge, we can counter misguided policy, and possibly even human greed.