Oceans cover 70 percent of the planet, supporting a global seafood economy that accounts for US$190 billion yearly and provides for protein needs of 17 percent of the population. But research shows that fish catches are declining, ocean temperatures are warming, sea levels are rising, and extreme weather events are threatening coastal habitats.
A project of the environmental non-profit group The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the atlas compiles spatially explicit information on the benefits of coral reefs, marshes, mangroves, seagrass meadows and oyster reefs.
“Think of bundles of ecosystems generating bundles of benefits,” says TNC senior marine scientist and atlas co-author Mark Spalding about the book’s purpose to inform planning for economic development and conservation.
“If we could build a seawall that stops waves, produces fish, stores carbon and grows vertically over time with sea level rise. That’s what a mangrove can do, but even those benefits are enhanced if in front of the mangroves there are coral reefs and seagrass beds,” he notes.
The atlas illustrates how coral reefs provide some level of shelter along 150,000 kilometres of the world’s tropical coastlines, benefitting 63 million people in over 100 countries.
“For each of Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico and the Philippines, the annual expected benefits of reefs in coastal protection exceed US$450 million per year,” says Spalding. “In the United States, healthy oyster reefs used to filter and clean all the water passing through estuaries. In southern Australia, a single hectare of seagrass can generate 30,000 extra fish every year. Coastal wetlands have sequestered 9.6 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to all the emissions of France over the same period since 1990,” he adds.
Researchers gathered data using traditional sources and latest technologies, as well as Flickr photos and TripAdvisor reviews, to quantify and map the value of ecotourism and how much this is linked to coral reefs.
“We used the locations of photos uploaded in Flickr to help apportion tourism numbers, and then used underwater photos to help assign that spending to individual locations. This helped us estimate a global value of nearly US$38 billion from tourism and to pinpoint that value to particular reefs — and indeed to show that all this value is generated from just 30 percent of the world’s reefs,” explains Spalding.
Robert Brumbaugh, TNC’s director of ocean mapping and planning, further stresses the importance of putting social, ecological and economic development information in one place for economists, investment bankers and finance/treasury department decision makers to access easily.
“[A] shift in how coastal ecosystems are perceived will lead to a fundamental change in the way they are managed,” Brumbaugh says. “Countries have made commitments for conservation under the global Convention on Biological Diversity, which calls for increasing ocean protection to at least 10 per cent by 2020, with a particular focus on ecosystem services. Knowing where and how those services are produced will make it possible for nations to meet these commitments.”
Brumbaugh says the World Bank is now incorporating the TNC’s Mapping Ocean Wealth data directly into their own database, noting “this will inform billions of dollars of loans and grants focused on supporting smarter economic development in and along the oceans”.
“The private sector has a huge opportunity to put this information to work as well, both to sustain their business enterprises and to contribute meaningfully to social good,” he adds.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.
Mark Spalding and others The Atlas of Ocean Wealth (The Nature Conservancy, June 2016)