Placing a value on the marine environment: Opportunity and challenges

04 April 2014 | News story

Quantifying the value of marine and coastal ecosystems in the Pacific Islands region provides an opportunity to improve the management of these ecosystems, but environmental valuation faces some unique regional challenges in the Pacific. 

There is a diversity of marine and coastal ecosystems in the Pacific, such as mangrove forests, coral reefs and seagrass meadows. When these ecosystems are healthy and intact, they provide valuable services to the people of the Pacific and the globe. Examples of the ecosystem services include: supporting fish species that are important for subsistence and commercial purposes; buffering coastal communities from flooding and storm surges; storing and sequestering carbon; and supporting recreational activities such as tourism.

A recent study by IUCN in Vanuatu found that the value of mangrove ecosystem services was as much as US$ 8,500 per hectare per year. This figure gives us a glimpse of the considerable benefits that mangroves provide to humans. Through the Marine and Coastal Biodiversity Management in Pacific Island Countries and Atolls (MACBIO) project, IUCN Oceania and partners are building on this work to improve understanding of the natural wealth of marine and coastal ecosystems.

A workshop for resource economists in the region was organized recently by IUCN Oceania. The purpose was to share ideas and experiences on how valuing ecosystem services can inform conservation and development decision-making in Pacific Island countries.

Participants in the workshop agreed that the economic invisibility of nature should end. We are encouraged to see that a growing number of decision-makers in Pacific Island countries are looking for ways to integrate natural capital and its services into strategic planning and national policies” says Karl P. Kirsch-Jung, GIZ-Project Director of MACBIO.

A number of challenges to undertaking economic evaluations of ecosystems in the Pacific were discussed during the two day workshop. One challenge is the lack of people trained to undertake the economic evaluations. Funding is another major constraint. Because ecosystem service valuation is a relatively new field, some funders appear hesitant to allocate scarce dollars from traditional conservation research to emerging economic approaches.

Other challenges relate to obtaining the necessary information to undertake the evaluation. Although economists prefer primary data, it is often costly and time-consuming to collect. Instead, researchers must determine which organizations and government agencies can provide secondary data, how to access the secondary data from governments and organizations, and whether the secondary data will be of reliable quality. It is also critical to present the results of the evaluations in an understandable and useable format.

A key challenge of this kind of work is presenting the results of the ecosystem service valuations in units that are relevant and useful to policy makers. Economists and some conservationists realize the importance of undertaking economic assessments, and people are talking about it, but actually undertaking the evaluation is complex. It requires the availability of accurate datasets and people qualified to analyze them. It also requires that those people know their audience and understand how the results will be used” says Jacob Salcone, MACBIO Technical Officer at IUCN.

The ecosystem service valuation methods to be used by the MACBIO project were refined at the workshop. Although the ecosystem service valuation method will vary between sites, the results from each will contribute to national reports in each of the five project countries. Participants also discussed the best way to communicate the results of the studies and the potential format for a regional valuation for oceans and coasts.

Through the valuation of marine ecosystem services in the five Pacific Island countries, the MACBIO project aims to contribute to global efforts under “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB) initiative, which is hosted by UNEP. Institutions and researchers associated with TEEB aim to recognize, capture and demonstrate the value of ecosystems to influence policy-making.

By raising awareness of the economics of marine and coastal ecosystems in the Pacific, the MACBIO project provides an excellent example of what the global TEEB initiative seeks to achieve at the national and sub-national levels. This workshop initiated an important process of identifying, quantifying and – potentially – capturing valuable marine and coastal ecosystem services, in order to improve national and regional policies in Pacific nations. By measuring the natural wealth we treasure, we can hope to better manage nature for today’s Pacific Islanders and for generations to come” says Dr Andrew Seidl, Professor of Agriculture and Resource Economics at the Colorado State University and former head of the IUCN Global Economics Programme, who presented at the workshop.

The MACBIO project, funded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB), is being implemented in five countries: Fiji, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu. It will assess the economic value of marine and coastal ecosystem services in the participating countries to inform marine spatial planning within their exclusive economic zones (EEZ). The project is being implemented by the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) in partnership with IUCN Oceania and is supported by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP).

MACBIO will be an example of how IUCN is helping to share credible and trusted knowledge about the value of biodiversity and ecosystem services, which can lead to better policy and conservation outcomes. The first economic evaluations under the MACBIO project will commence in May 2014 in the Vava’u Island group, Tonga” added Jacob Salcone.

Workshop participants included representatives from GIZ, IUCN, Secretariat of the Pacific Community–Pacific Resource and Environmental Economics Network (SPC-PREEN), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the University of the South Pacific (USP).

For more information, please contact Jacob Salcone at jacob.salcone@iucn.org