Friday, September 6, 2013

Can ecosystem services be the bridge between Marine Protected Areas and Human Welfare?

Marine Protected Areas are an important policy approach for protecting marine biodiversity. The dominant reason for MPA development is environmental protection where marine species and habitats are spatially protected from 'damaging' activity'. They act as a insurance policy protecting biodiversity from future changes in the earths climate and act as reservoirs of biodiversity in the context of increasing use and industrialisation of the oceans. In the UK networks of MPA sites have been recently proposed in England and Scotland.

A new paper in the journal Marine Policy "Do marine protected areas deliver flows of ecosystem services to support human welfare?" based on a report from the Valuing Nature network explores how can the concept of ecosystem services can be linked to the development of MPAs. Ecosystem services are the goods and benefits that people derive from ecosystems, and include a range of benefits including provisioning services e.g. fisheries, marine plants and natural resources; regulatory services including absorption of CO2 and wastes; and cultural services such as recreation, sense of place, and education. Increasingly monetary values are attached to services in the provisioning and regulatory classes, representing the economic benefits derived from natural systems. A debate exists over how we can value cultural services through monetary or other qualitative means, but overall it is recognised that these services are critically important for society. MPAs can improve the delivery of services from marine systems as habitats and species, on which the flow of services depends, are improved or restored by the spatial protection and associated management measures. Clearly scale is an issue here.... small unconnected sites will deliver little while large ecologically coherent networks could provide substantial services to society.

The paper takes the discussion over ecosystem services a step forward by identifying the specific services that are provided by marine habitats and species. It opens a debate on how marine protected areas can be managed - both in terms of their primary function for conserving biodiversity and in terms of providing a suite of services for human beings. While we are at an early stage in terms of understanding and capturing the concept of value from ecosystem services, acknowledging the contribution of MPAs in supporting human welfare is an integral step in building public support for their designation.

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