The Economic Benefits of Protecting Marine Environments

Scientists and environmentalists have argued for many years of the need to protect marine environments. While the focus is often on global warming, fossil fuels, keeping the lights on and keeping warm in winter, when it comes to the legacy left to future generations and the intangible benefits gleamed such as aesthetic pleasure, there are also very good economic reasons for protecting marine environments at local, national and global levels.

Fishing

The extraction of animals, plants and marine organisms from the sea, either for food provision or other purposes, is a large part of the global economy. A 2006 UK study showed that if the entire fish catching sector of the economy were removed, UK GDP would decrease by 672.7 million, and nearly 29,000 jobs would be lost. If we extend that projection to all the fishing nations of the world, the global economic loss would be immense.

In the UK alone, if fish processing, which depends mainly on supplies of imported fish, completely disappeared, then UK GDP would decrease by 3,891.1 million and over 118,000 jobs would be lost. Protecting fish stocks in a healthy marine environment is vital if sea fishing is to continue to provide money and jobs.

Recreational fishing is also major industry. In America alone, it contributes $125 billion a year to the economy and supports millions of jobs. The federal and state governments of the United States channel some of this money into conservation projects, such as the Sport Fish Restoration Program.

Biodiversity

Biodiversity, or biological variety, is important because the economic benefits obtained from the marine environment depend on the state of the whole ecosystem. Changes in the composition of marine life, or reductions in the richness of species, will impact on the goods and services obtained from them.

Tourism

Tourist industries around the world depend upon access to clean, healthy marine waters. To take one example, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia contributes around AU$5 billion a year to the economy of Australia, with over 1.6 million tourists visiting the marine park. Threats to the Great Barrier Reef are loss of natural habitat, declining water quality and coral bleaching, and would have a huge impact on the tourism industry.

Coastal protection

Studies undertaken after the catastrophic tsunami of 2004 concluded that areas with most devastation were those where the mangrove forests lining the shores had been removed. In areas where the natural wetland coastal forests remained, they acted as a buffer against the incoming waters, and far less damage occurred. Experiments showed that mangroves will reduce the flow of a tsunami by over 90 percent. Despite this, mangroves are one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems.

Other types of wetlands, such as bogs and swamps, act as sponges which soak up groundwater and prevent flooding. Bogs and marshes around the world are being drained and built on, which is removing natural flood defences.

Marine Dead Zones

The future of the oceans and seas if marine conservation does not take place can be seen in the marine ‘dead zones’ that have appeared in recent years. These are areas suffering from hypoxia, a condition in which there is not enough oxygen in the water to sustain marine life. Mapping done by the World Resources Institute and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science have identified over 530 dead zones.

There are also 228 sites around the world that show signs of marine eutrophication. This occurs when waters are filled with excess nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which have been washed into them. Bacteria feeding on the nutrients consume oxygen from the waters, which leads to eutrophication areas developing into dead zones.

Dead zones and eutrophication areas cover about 950,000 square miles of ocean. In the UK, there are several dead zones, including the Humber, Clyde and Forth estuaries and Chichester Harbour. Steps are being taken to reduce these numbers around the world, as without marine conservation, dead oceans will have a catastrophic effect on economies around the globe.