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Seaside Saturdays: The Power of Economics

Welcome back to our Seaside Saturdays series, where this week we’ll touch on a topic important across all fields of environmental resource management: how people make conservation matter through the power of economics.

Pacific Islands anemone; NOAA

In the conservation arena, many environmental advocates try to appeal to our sentimental fuzzy feelings to convince us that protecting sea otters, waterfalls, or forests is important for future generations.  However, in doing this, they alienate many members of the public and miss out on the most powerful argument of all: economics.  Because we all do enjoy the great outdoors, things like clean water, safe beaches, and healthy animal populations are valuable.  It seems strange to attach monetary values to something as intangible as enjoying a seaside sunset, but the fact remains that the general public is willing to pay for these aspects of the environment.  Not only do these types of valuation exercises exist, but they underlie many (if not all) resource management decisions that are made worldwide.  Economists often specialize in this type of non-use or existence valuation and conduct studies that lead to reports such as this recent NOAA publication, stating that Hawaii’s coral reefs are worth almost $34 billion annually.  Such a large sum holds a lot of sway in political circles and speaks to the power of numbers.

Sala y Gomez Reserve, Chile

Similarly, several months ago, Enric Sala (National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and one of my personal heroes) spoke at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars along with Dr. Jane Lubchenco about using economics to debunk popular ocean conservation myths.  He has visited pristine areas around the world and works in Washington DC to raise awareness about the benefits of marine protected areas.  Using examples from Spain, Kenya, and Mombassa, he shows that MPAs have doubled fisheries income and raised tourist revenue twenty times over.  The largest marine conservation myth that he combats is that MPAs are costly.  Spotlighting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, he shows how tourism revenue is up almost 40%, with management costing a mere 10% of that income (a smart investment to be sure!).

Sunset; Surfrider Foundation

Sala’s dream is to get a large portion of the ocean protected.  What is enough, you ask?  Of course this is difficult to determine, but the scientific community recommends between 20-50% of the worlds oceans be protected and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has mandated 10%. Twelve large MPAs account for almost 80% of the world’s total protected areas, with almost 4500 smaller reserves dotting coastlines around the globe.  No doubt these smaller reserves are more costly per unit area, but again Sala appeals to the numbers.  To protect 10% of the world’s oceans, he estimates the cost at $12 billion per year.  For only an additional $4 billion, 20% could be protected and 1 million jobs would be created.  Interestingly, this $16 billion dollars is the same amount that is spent in bad fishing subsidies per year.  Sala hopes for a combination of government involvement and stakeholder demand to change congressional attitudes toward MPAs around the world.  This economic perspective is increasingly important as we move forward in marine conservation and management.

Check out the IUCN’s global work in MPAs for more information on this topic!

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