Thinking Big, Valuing the Priceless

What ails the oceans is not solely the consequence of the race to fish. Nor is it the catastrophic effects of oil spills and ocean dumping. Nor is it the habitat loss associated with coastal development and sprawl. It is all of these things and more -- the oceans are dying the death of a thousand cuts.

Why does the world stand by while the seas, covering three-quarters of the earth's surface and containing the bulk of the earth's biodiversity, decline and degrade? It is because we do not adequately value the ocean for all the goods and services it provides us and do not appreciate the extent to which those ecosystem services are lost by what we do on land as well as by what we do in the sea. We have substantial knowledge about what areas are the most important to protect. We have well-developed tools to do something about it. But we have been horribly timid about applying our knowledge and tools.

To be truly effective in facing down insidious and persistent threats to our seas and coasts, we need to think big. Part of thinking big means considering the strong interconnections between land and sea, as mediated by freshwater. To manage oceans better, we need to look landward and manage watersheds. A strategic response is also based on recognizing the importance of marine ecosystem services (valuing the priceless) in order to generate the political will to prevent their continued loss. It will mean people working together -- across regions, across sectors, and across disciplines.

Coupling government-mediated actions with market-based initiatives is one way to think and act big. Public/private partnerships are key. Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) markets offer incentives to individuals, communities, and institutions to protect ecosystems that provide goods and services such as flood control, water purification, and nutrient cycling. Water-quality trading or wetlands banking schemes could compensate agrarian stakeholders for protecting the riparian ecosystems that maintain water quality. Farmers benefit from cleaner water and also from selling PES credits. Those with vested interests in clean water would buy these credits. So would industries that cannot or refuse to mitigate their impact on the freshwater ecosystem. Those that benefit from the services -- fishers, tourism operators, water-utilizing industries, communities that live downstream -- can be expected to pay for them.

The Chesapeake Bay, the country's largest estuary and an invaluable ecosystem that supports much ocean diversity and productivity, is a fine place to try out such ideas. Despite many decades of interest in improving the condition of the bay, it continues to decline in health. Groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have raised awareness and put out small fires, but the inescapable reality is that the general trend in the bay's condition remains downward. Emerging PES markets have a solid chance to turn things around.

In order for systems like this to work at the scale needed to create a turnaround in the bay's condition, leadership is required. The separate efforts of citizen organizations, local communities, state environmental-management authorities, and the business community are all crucial. But the whole will never be greater than the parts without strategic guidance from an entity that does not yet exist: a regional authority with real power and real ability to provide incentives. The federal government has a responsibility to provide that leadership -- a responsibility it has so far shirked.

Big-picture, government-led efforts, involving markets and civil society, could prove to be the last salvation for our precious downstream and offshore ecosystems.