BE Pulse #5: Mapping and measuring ocean wealth
03 08 2021

Coral Reef in Siaba Kecil, Komodo. Credit: Beth Watson / Ocean Image Bank

By Belinda Bramley

In our recent white paper on the Blue Economy in Practice – Raising Lives and Livelihoods we propose that a good starting point for any blue economy journey is mapping and measuring ocean wealth. Traditional measures of economic output and growth for ocean sectors tell only part of the story. Supplementing these measures with broader information on the status and trends in ocean-related social prosperity and natural assets provides a more holistic view of how these inter-related areas are changing over time and whether economic activities are turning out to be both socially equitable and environmentally sustainable in practice.

Mapping and measuring natural ocean wealth provides the critical context for scoping what new Blue Economy activities are possible. It identifies where activities can be combined and where trade-offs are needed between activities that may not be compatible, whilst pinpointing where investments and policy measures can be implemented to mitigate threats to a healthy ocean ecosystem. The process of measuring ocean wealth also reveals the significant values of ecosystem services provided by marine natural assets, such as carbon sequestration, coastal protection, fishery provision and ecotourism. The simple act of valuing a natural asset has the power to challenge long-standing norms of assessing where sustained economic value is derived; to generate new sources of sustainable finance and to support a more holistic view of what activities constitute and contribute to sustainable development.

It all begins with mapping.


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Over the next five years, Canada’s first ever Census of Environment will create a complete register of national ecosystem assets, which will enable the Government to produce, amongst others, a full set of national ocean accounts. As we reported last month, Canada is among a handful of countries which are piloting the creation of national ocean accounts which include natural capital, to “help us better understand the total value that oceans bring to our society….and so we can determine whether investments in our oceans are building ocean wealth for future generations.”

Vast areas of the world’s seabed are unmapped and this grand challenge is being proactively addressed by the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 programme. This month New Zealand became the first government partner of the initiative. Mapping the seabed is crucial for safe navigation and provides core insights for habitat identification and physical oceanography.

Having up-to-date nautical charts provides confidence for the shipping industry and enables economic growth, according to the Head of Ghana’s Hydrographic Office. This newly established office is collating information from a range of national agencies to produce nautical charts and disseminate maritime security information. In neighbouring Nigeria, the Navy is planning to acquire more hydrographic vessels to undertake charting of the country’s maritime space and ensure safer sea routes, as it gradually assumes responsibility for this task from the UK Hydrographic Office. The Navy also has plans to build capacity and skills by upgrading its Hydrographic School and securing accreditation by the International Hydrography Organisation. These developments are essential for the realisation of Nigeria’s Blue Economy ambitions, according to the Chief of the Naval Staff.

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Maps help us make sense of the world, notes the lead author of a new paper this month on how genetic data can be transformed to simple geospatial data layers using mapping software. Such approaches can help support more robust marine planning and designation of key conservation areas, by taking account of evolutionary processes and maintaining genetic diversity. Genetic approaches to marine conservation are becoming increasingly feasible as environmental DNA (“eDNA”) methods to extract DNA from seawater sampling gather pace, even to the point of being able to identify individuals within a population. Such techniques open up an exciting new frontier for understanding and effectively managing populations of elusive and migratory species. However they do rely on the existence of comprehensive genetic databases for marine species, to look up new DNA sequences against. New barcode libraries are therefore very welcome and one was announced this month by scientists who undertook a genetics study of the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem. The new database identifies 605 species in the California Current, including 275 that had not previously been catalogued, and the paper sets out best practices for developing other such libraries around the world.

Citizen science can also contribute important marine data whilst enabling everyday people to enjoy and learn more about the marine life that surrounds them. Two UK environmental organisations are conducting new training programmes to increase the number of people wishing to gain an understanding of the many whale and dolphin species which live in British waters whilst gathering information on their populations to support conservation initiatives.

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Building a scientific baseline for coastal ecosystems such as mangroves can also support efforts towards quantifying nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement and national decarbonisation plans, such as those of Costa Rica. Coastal ecosystems such as mangroves play essential roles in adaptation and mitigation, whilst seeding commercial fisheries through the provision of nursery habitat. As keystone species they have an outsized influence in supporting biodiversity around the world’s tropical coasts. As the author of a new book titled The State of the World’s Mangroves observes, “mangroves are super-ecosystems and we need them. They are the best carbon-capture-and-storage systems on the planet.”


Once natural assets are mapped, it is possible to measure some of the values they provide. A recent Mapping Ocean Wealth seminar in the Caribbean featured data, tools, maps and models which can help policymakers gain a fuller appreciation of the values derived from the coastal environment to support decision-making. Work undertaken by The Nature Conservancy for the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States was highlighted, which demonstrated that the coral reefs of Dominica, Grenada, Saint Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines generate $118.3m per year in income and their beaches generate $318m per year. Across the world it is estimated that almost half a billion people live close to coral reefs and rely on them for their livelihoods, with reefs generating goods and services worth hundreds of billions of dollars per year[1].

In a first report of its kind, the U.S. Government reported last month that its maritime economy grew at almost twice the rate of the overall national economy in 2019. Tourism and recreation was the largest marine economy sector in 2019, accounting for $234.9 billion of gross output, or 59% of overall Blue Economy output.

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“These statistics show how powerful America’s Blue Economy is as a driver of jobs, innovation and economic growth,” commented NOAA’s acting administrator upon the report’s release, which also showed that real gross output, compensation, and employment all grew faster in the marine economy than in the overall economy in 2019.

Australia’s Blue Economy was also reported to be one of the most important, vital and fastest-growing parts of the Australian economy by the Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries and for Industry Development. “Our $81.2 billion Blue Economy produced more than the agricultural sector ($58.9 billion), coal mining ($69.7 billion) and heavy and civil engineering construction ($68.5 billion) in 2017-18” noted the Assistant Minister. As with the report from the U.S. Administration, the report prepared by the Australian Institute of Marine Science focuses on the value of the flows of traditional marine industries in terms of their contribution to the national economy and employment, rather than the value of the stock of marine assets. As such, Australia’s report excludes values of its natural ocean wealth, except for the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem. Here the report notes that “the economic, social and icon asset value of the Great Barrier Reef approximates $56 billion. In 2015-16, the Great Barrier Reef supported 64,000 jobs and contributed $6.4 billion to the Australian economy. The Great Barrier Reef ecosystem and the services and values it provides to society are at growing risk from climate change.” This single example amply illustrates the sheer magnitude of the values-at-risk to Blue Economies from climate change and the need for more comprehensive Blue Economy metrics which more adequately account for human equity and environmental sustainability dimensions. As we note in our report, a stable or increasing ocean balance sheet is central to sustainability.

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The window for climate action continues to narrow, and although the Great Barrier Reef has once more narrowly avoided being listed as “in danger” by UNESCO, scientists are calling on the Australian Government to comprehensively address climate breakdown and declining water quality relating to river run-off, which are the greatest threats to the World Heritage site.Lamenting the severe damage inflicted on the Great Barrier Reef by a series of unprecedented marine heatwaves which triggered three mass coral bleaching events in quick succession, the UN Special Envoy for the Ocean stresses the need for urgent action. “It is imperative that we give the ocean the level of respect that it commands as the source of life on this planet and devote our efforts and resources towards impactful action to save coral reefs and the ocean for future generations.”

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