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What does the ocean do for you? Introducing the concept of marine natural capital

By Dr Tara Hooper

Think for a moment about how the ocean is important to us. The first things that come to mind might be quite general; maybe you think of the ocean as the source of fish, crab, lobster, mussels, and of the livelihoods of the fishermen who harvest them. Then there are the other maritime industries, from freight ships and passenger ferries crossing the waters, to offshore wind farms and aggregate dredging, which both rely on the seabed. The sea and coastline are, of course, home to wonderful wildlife, including starfish, seagrass beds, basking sharks, and seabirds. We like to know these animals and plants are there, and will continue to be, even if we rarely see them for ourselves. Perhaps your thoughts will turn to the importance of the ocean in your own life; opportunities for swimming, boating or kayaking, or simply how your spirits rise when you are on a favourite beach or at a clifftop viewpoint.

Some of the benefits we receive from our seas are not as obvious as food supplies and recreation, but they can be of global importance. Marine habitats (from coastal saltmarsh, seagrass and kelp beds, to the muds of the deep sea) play a vital role in taking up and storing carbon, and so helping to mitigate climate change.  An IUCN report notes how the rate of carbon storage in coastal saltmarshes is more than ten times higher than in temperate forests.  Saltmarshes (and stands of other marine plants) also reduce the impacts of waves, decreasing shoreline erosion and protecting buildings and infrastructure inland from storm surges and coastal flooding. Below the water’s surface, the mud, sand, gravel and rock, and the plants and creatures in and on them, provide refuge and food for important fishery species, helping to ensure that our supply of seafood continues.


Ecology meets economics

It doesn’t take long to come up with a list that begins to illustrate just how essential the ocean is to so many different aspects of our life and livelihoods. Any increased pressure on the marine environment will inevitably have negative impacts, not just on the species and habitats directly affected, but for our economy and wellbeing. As the recent Dasgupta Review highlighted “the solution starts with understanding and accepting a simple truth: our economies are embedded within Nature, not external to it.”

One way of highlighting the importance of nature to society is to start to think about the environment in the same way as we think about other things that are important to our economies. This has led to the environment being talked about using terms more like those used to describe financial systems. The plants, animals, soil, air, and water are our “natural capital assets”. Like financial assets, our natural capital contributes to our overall wealth, and we want to ensure that it grows, rather than diminishes, over time. This stock of capital assets provides things that are useful to people, which are referred to as “ecosystem services”. If our natural capital assets decline, then so do the benefits we can receive from them.

Improving our understanding of the ecosystem services and benefits that are provided by the ocean, and how valuable they are to people, can provide a new perspective for making key decisions about the management of our marine environment.


Putting ideas into practice

These ideas for thinking about the environment differently are becoming mainstream in environmental policy. The 25 Year Environment Plan describes how “We will also set gold standards in protecting and growing natural capital – leading the world in using this approach as a tool in decision-making.” The challenge now is to develop the methods and tools that allow this to happen in practice.

JNCC has already been involved in developing tools for managing natural capital on land and at the coast, including in the UK Overseas Territories. Another recent project on viticulture in Chile includes interactive maps and a user app to show those involved in vineyard management how their decisions, and wider environmental conditions, can affect the delivery of ecosystem services such as water quality, the view, soil retention, and the control of pest species.

Our new Marine Natural Capital group is now taking the approach into ocean areas. The work brings additional challenges; our seas are complex and dynamic, and we have less information about them than we do for our land areas. However, the team brings together longstanding expertise from across JNCC in marine monitoring, mapping and modelling, making us well placed to take on the task. 

Part of the natural capital approach involves determining the monetary value of the benefits we receive from nature, so that we can record this natural wealth in national accounts, alongside those for financial capital. However, we also need to understand the ecological, social and cultural factors that create this value, and this is where JNCC’s work has focussed so far.

Take, for example, work we have been doing for the Turks and Caicos Islands (in the Western Atlantic), as part of a wider Darwin Plus project to support local coastal and marine management (DPLUS119). Natural capital accounts for the Turks and Caicos were developed for JNCC by eftec in 2018-19. These highlight the value of local market sectors such as fisheries and tourism, but also the importance of natural coastal defence, carbon uptake, and local recreational and cultural uses. For our latest project, we built logic chains, to connect these economic benefits back to the habitats and species that are pivotal in their continuing supply. Then, we created maps to show the most important areas for the delivery of important ecosystem services, which could be used to support decisions on where to focus management interventions. 

We have been doing similar work in the North Sea. These include examples of regional marine plan areas as well as individual Marine Protected Areas, which allowed us to explore the challenges and opportunities at different spatial scales, particularly those related to data availability. We have developed asset registers, which summarise the extent of the different seabed habitats and their condition. To accomplish this, we made good use of several of JNCC’s existing data products, including maps of seabed types, human activity and seabed disturbance. As well as mapping the areas important for key ecosystem services such as carbon storage, fish habitat and recreation, we also looked at ways to assess and communicate the risk to their continued delivery. 


What next?

As we go forward, the JNCC team will continue to refine the general methods used in our pilot projects, and will also look in more detail at specific aspects of marine management. In particular, we want to understand what the outputs from ecosystem models and the indicators used to determine whether our marine environment has reached Good Environmental Status can tell us about natural capital assets and ecosystem services. Working closely with our Marine Protected Area site leads, we will also be looking at how natural capital thinking can be incorporated into conservation advice for Marine Protected Areas.

So, as we approach World Ocean Day on 8 June, it’s important to think about how the marine environment is essential to so many aspects of our life and livelihoods. Our experts will continue to work across the UK and the globe providing scientific advice to protect the ocean.


Image credits: Waves © Radu Razvan Gheorghe/; dog walker on beach © pixabay; sailing boat © pixabay.

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