Description of Ecosystem Services and Methods to Determine Ratings

People row a tomol

The following provides descriptions of the various ecosystem services considered in sanctuary condition reports and the process for rating them. The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) defines ecosystem services (ES) in a slightly more restrictive way than some other experts. Specifically, “ecosystem services” are defined herein as the benefits people obtain from nature through use, consumption, enjoyment, and/or simply knowing these resources exist (non-use). The descriptions below reflect this definition, and therefore, only those ecosystem services are evaluated in sanctuary conditions reports. In contrast, there are some supporting services, such as biodiversity, decomposition, and carbon storage, that are included in the State section of these reports instead. Specifically, these services are critical to ecosystem function and considered "intermediate" ecosystem services that are not directly used, consumed, or enjoyed by humans to meet the ONMS condition report definition of ecosystem services. In other words, these secondary or intermediate services support ecosystems and are not final ecosystem services in and of themselves.

As an example, biodiversity is often considered an ecosystem service, but ONMS recognizes biodiversity as an attribute of the ecosystem on which many “final” ecosystem services depend (e.g., recreation and food supply/commercial fishing). For this reason, it is considered a secondary ecosystem service and it is evaluated in the State section of the report.

In addition, ONMS does not consider climate regulation or stabilization in condition reports. The impacts of climate change on water quality and biodiversity, however, are considered separately in the State section of the report. While sanctuaries are not large enough to influence climate stability, they may locally buffer climate-related factors, such as temperature change and ocean acidity; thus, the extent to which they may locally buffer climate-related factors is reflected in resource conditions in the State section.

Certain other ecosystem services may not be assessed by individual sanctuaries because the activities required to achieve them are prohibited (e.g., collection of ornamentals) or there is simply no related activity underway or expected (e.g., energy production).

Below are brief descriptions of the ecosystem services considered within each sanctuary condition report (more complete descriptions are provided below the list).

    Cultural (non-material benefits)
  1. Consumptive recreation — Recreational activities that result in the removal of or harm to natural or cultural resources
  2. Non-consumptive recreation — Recreational activities that do not result in intentional removal of or harm to natural or cultural resources
  3. Science — The capacity to acquire and contribute information and knowledge
  4. Education — The capacity to acquire and provide intellectual enrichment
  5. Heritage — Recognition of historical and heritage legacy and cultural practices
  6. Sense of Place — Aesthetic attraction, spiritual significance, and location identity

  7. Provisioning (material benefits)
  8. Commercial Harvest — The capacity to support commercial market demands for seafood products
  9. Subsistence Harvest — The capacity to support non-commercial harvesting of food and utilitarian products
  10. Water — Providing water for human use by minimizing pollution, including nutrients, sediments, pathogens, chemicals, and trash
  11. Ornamentals — Resources collected for decorative, aesthetic, ceremonial purposes
  12. Biotechnology — Medicinal and other products derived or manufactured from sanctuary animals or plants for commercial use
  13. Energy — Use of ecosystem-derived materials or processes for the production of energy

  14. Regulating (buffers to change)
  15. Coastal protection — Flow regulation that protects habitats, property, coastlines, and other features

Sanctuaries vary with regard to the ecosystem services they support, so each sanctuary is likely to have a different mix of services and information to support its assessment. To rate the status and trends for each relevant ecosystem service, the following was considered:

  • the ecosystem services relevant to the sanctuary
  • the best available indicators for each ecosystem service (economic, non-economic human dimensions, and ecological)
  • the status and direction of change of each ecosystem service
  • whether economic and non-economic human dimensions indicators yield the same conclusions about the status and trend for each ecosystem service
  • whether economic indicators send a false signal about the status and trend of an ecosystem service (namely, conflicting ecological and economic indicators, suggesting that people are sacrificing natural capital for short-term economic gain)

The steps used to rate ecosystem services were adapted from the multi-year study “Marine and Estuarine Goal Setting for South Florida” (MARES) of three south Florida marine ecosystems, including Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It used Integrated Conceptual Ecosystem Models (ICEMs) for each ecosystem under the Driving forces (Drivers)-Pressure-State-Ecosystem Services-Response (DPSER) Model (Nuttle and Fletcher 2013), and evaluation of three types of indicators: 1) economic; 2) human dimension non-economic (Lovelace et al. 2013); and 3) resource for each ecosystem service.

The discussion of ecosystem services should consider whether economic and non-economic indicators yield the same conclusions as resource indicators; this will enable consideration of the sometimes conflicting relationship between economic gain and the preservation of natural capital. For example, economic indicators (e.g., dive operator income) may suggest improving recreational services while resource indicators (e.g., anchor damage) suggest that natural resource qualities are being sacrificed for short-term gain, making the activity unsustainable.

The ONMS recognizes that the ES model is intentionally anthropocentric, designed to elicit a selected type of service-oriented rating useful in resource management decision making. Connections between ecosystems and culture and resource management are often more complex, beyond the scope of the condition report. Collectively, stakeholders may have multiple worldviews and ecosystem values equally important to consider, and some ecosystem elements may not be appropriate to rate in the ES approach (e.g., aspects of Heritage and Sense of Place). Sites may want to consider the option of including a “context-specific perspective” or narrative (as proposed by IPBES in Diaz et al 2018), without assigning a rating, for the purpose of providing appropriate information for management purposes. Cultural (non-material) ecosystem services are particularly intricate and have been undervalued in the past. Evaluators should remember that deliberative processes engaging local stakeholders and subject matter experts are critical, and adherence to the process demands both flexibility and creativity.

Rating Scheme for Ecosystem Services

Rating Status Description
Good The capacity to provide the ecosystem service has remained unaffected or has been restored.
Good/Fair The capacity to provide the ecosystem service is compromised, but performance is acceptable.
Fair The capacity to provide the ecosystem service is compromised, and existing management would require enhancement to enable acceptable performance.
Fair/Poor The capacity to provide the ecosystem service is compromised, and substantial new or enhanced management is required to restore it.
Poor The capacity to provide the ecosystem service is compromised, and it is doubtful that new or enhanced management would restore it.

The discussion of ecosystem services ratings within the written report should focus on the influence of drivers and societal values considered responsible for the ratings. This discussion may also consideration of whether economic and non-economic indicators yield the same conclusions; this will enable consideration of the sometimes conflicting relationship between economic gain and the preservation of natural capital. For example, economic indicators (e.g., dive operator income) may suggest improving recreational services while resource indicators (e.g., anchor damage) suggest that natural resource qualities are being sacrificed for short-term gain, making the activity unsustainable.

Descriptions of Ecosystem Services

Cultural (non-material benefits)

Consumptive recreation — Recreational activities that result in the removal of or harm to natural or cultural resources

Perhaps the most popular activity that involves consumptive recreation is sport fishing from private boats and for-hire operations. Targeted species and bycatch are removed from the environment, and those that must be released due to regulations and prohibitions (e.g., undersized or out of season) sometimes die due to stress or predation. Nonetheless, fishing for consumptive purposes is a highly valued cultural tradition for many people, as well as a popular recreational activity. Other consumptive recreational activities include beachcombing, clam digs and shell collecting.

Indicators of status and trends for consumptive recreation often include levels of use (direct counts or estimates made from commercial vessel records and catch levels, and fishing license registrations) and production of economic value through job creation, income, spending, and tax revenue. Public polls can also be used to assess non-market indicators, such as importance and satisfaction, social values, willingness to pay, and facility and service availability.

Non-consumptive recreation — Recreational activities that do not result in intentional removal of or harm to natural or cultural resources

Recreational activities, including ecotourism and outdoor sports, are often considered a non-consumptive ecosystem service that provides desirable experiential opportunities. Non-consumptive recreational activities include those on shore or from private boats and for-hire operations, such as relaxing, exploring, diving and snorkeling, kayaking, birdwatching, surfing, sailing, and wildlife viewing. Activities that may have unintentional impacts on habitats or wildlife including catch-and-release fishing and tidepooling which could result in mortality or trampling, respectively, are also considered in this category.

It should be noted that private boating often includes both non-consumptive and consumptive recreational activities (e.g., snorkeling and fishing during a single trip). Thus, field and survey data can be ambiguous, reflecting the heterogeneous preferences of boaters. This also has implications for interpretations of data regarding attitudes and perceptions of management strategies and regulations to protect and restore natural and cultural resources.

Indicators used to assess status and trends in market values for recreation can include direct measures of use (e.g., person-days of use by type of activity) that result in spending, income, jobs, gross regional product, and tax revenues. They can also be non-market economic values (the difference between what people pay to use a good/service and what they would be willing to pay). The data can be used to estimate the value a consumer receives when using a good or service over and above what they pay to obtain the good or service. Indirect measures are also used. For example, populations and per capita incomes at numerous scales influence demand for recreational products and services. Fuel prices can even serve as indirect measures of recreational demand because the levels of use by some recreational users tracks fuel prices.

Science — The capacity to acquire and contribute information and knowledge

Sanctuaries serve as natural laboratories that can advance science and education. NOAA provides vessel support, facilities, and information that is valuable to the research community, including academic, corporate, non-governmental and government agency scientists, citizen scientists, and educators that instruct others using research. Sanctuaries serve as long-term monitoring sites, provide minimally disturbed focal areas for many studies, and provide opportunities to restore or maintain natural systems.

Status and trends for science can be assessed by counting and characterizing the number of research permits and tracking the accomplishments and growth of partnerships, activity levels of citizen monitoring, and participation of the research community in sanctuary management. The number and types of research cruises and other expeditions conducted can also provide useful indicators. Indirect indicators, such as per capita income and gross regional or national product, may be helpful as higher incomes and better economic conditions often result in higher investments in research and monitoring.

Education — The capacity to acquire and provide intellectual enrichment

As with science, national marine sanctuaries’ protected natural systems and cultural resources attract educators at many levels for both formal and informal education. Students and teachers often either visit sanctuaries or use curricula and information provided by sanctuary educators.

The status and trends for education can be tracked by evaluating the number of educators and students visiting the sanctuary and visitor centers, the number of teacher trainings, use of sanctuary-related curricula in the classroom, and levels of activity in volunteer docent programs. The number of outreach offerings provided during sanctuary research and education expeditions can also be a good indicator. Education can also follow trends in populations and per capita income locally, regionally, and nationally. Populations create demand for services, and higher incomes lead to investment, making these useful indirect indicators.

Heritage — Recognition of historical and heritage legacy and cultural practices

The iconic nature of many national marine sanctuaries or particular places within them generally means that they have long been recognized, used, and valued. Communities developed around them, traveled through them, and depended on their resources. This shared history and heritage creates the unique cultural character of many present-day coastal communities, and can also be an important part of the current economy. Recognition of the past, including exhibits, artifacts, records, stories, songs, and chants provide not only a link to the history of these areas, but a way to better understand the maritime and cultural heritage within the environment itself. Tangible and intangible aspects of heritage blend together to contribute to the history and legacy of the place.

For some marine sanctuaries, vibrant and active indigenous cultures remain a defining and dominant element of the cultural heritage of these places. Not only are they a direct and priceless connection to the past, but they frame and influence modern-day economies, cultural landscapes, and conservation ethics and practices. Their very existence is intrinsic to the heritage of these places.

Given this broad range of cultural expression, benefits of heritage may take many forms. Additionally, cultural heritage resources will often be part of, or overlap with, other ES categories, and may be understood from multiple perspectives (such as, a living resource keystone species that may also be identified as a “cultural” keystone species, one of exceptional significance to a culture or a people). The Heritage ES category defines benefits from resources primarily attached to historical and heritage legacy and culture. Heritage resources, including certain living resources and traditional medicines, may also provide other benefits that can be addressed in other ES categories.

Economic indicators that reflect status and trends for heritage value as an ecosystem service may include spending, income, jobs, and other revenues generated from visitation, whether it is to dive on wreck sites or patronize museums and visitor centers where artifacts are displayed and interpreted. Non-market indicators, such as willingness to pay for protection of resources, activity levels for training and docent interpretation, and changes in threat levels (looting and damage caused by fishing), may also be considered. Sites may determine that some aspects of Heritage may simply not be ratable using the framework of condition reports.

Sense of place — Aesthetic attraction, spiritual significance, and location identity

A wide range of intangible meanings can be attributed to a specific place by people, both individually and collectively. Aesthetic attraction, spiritual significance, and location identity all influence our recognition and appreciation for a place, as well as efforts to protect its iconic elements.

Marine environments serve as places of aesthetic attraction for many people, and inspire works of art, music, architecture, and tradition. Many people also value particular places as sources of therapeutic rejuvenation and to offer a change of perspective. Aesthetic aspects are often reflected as motifs in books, film, artworks, and folklore and as part of national symbols, architecture, and advertising efforts. These elements of “place attachment” may develop and change over the short and long term.

Many people, families, and communities consider places as defining parts of their “self identity,” especially if they have lived there during or since childhood. The relationship between self/family/community and place can run very deep, particularly where lineage is place-based, with genealogy going back many generations. “Place identity” develops over the long term, and is often expressed in reciprocal human-ecosystem relationships, and locations associated with spiritual significance. The recognition of very long term place-based stewardship, sometimes in excess of 10,000 years, provides a unique aspect of place identity.

Many people even incorporate water or water-related activities as habitual or significant parts of their lives and cultures. Different factors are considered to measure/assess sense of place, including level of uniqueness, recognition, reputation, reliance, and appreciation for a place. Accounting for sense of place can provide strong incentives for conservation, preservation, and restoration efforts.

Despite its value as a cultural ecosystem service, it is difficult to quantify sense of place with direct measures. Examples of indicators may include the quality and availability of opportunities to support rituals, ceremonies and narratives and the level of satisfaction knowing that a place exists. Polls or surveys are often used to evaluate public opinions regarding economic and non-economic values of a place. Non-economic values may include existence or bequest value, which use surveys to estimate the value people would be willing to pay for resources to stay in a certain condition even though they may never actually use them. To comprehensively evaluate sense of place, sites may find it useful to consider subcategories such as place attachment and place identity. Furthermore, sites may determine that some aspects of Sense of Place may simply not be ratable using the framework of condition reports.

Provisioning (material benefits)

Commercial Harvest - The capacity to support commercial market demands for seafood products

Humans consume a large variety and abundance of products originating from the oceans and Great Lakes for nutrition or for use in other sectors. This includes fish, shellfish, other invertebrates, roe, and algae. Seafood is one of the largest traded food commodities in the world. Commercial fishing provides food for domestic and export markets, sold as wholesale and retail for household, restaurant and institutional meals. Seafood based industries include those that fish and harvest directly from wild capture and cultivated resources, as well as other businesses with functions throughout the supply chain including production of commercial gear, processors, storage facilities, buyers, transport and market outlets.

Within this category we also include what many call artisanal fishing, which can include commercial sale, but is also conducted by individuals or small groups who live near their harvest sites and use small scale, low technology, low cost fishing practices. Their catch is usually not processed (although it may be smoked or canned), and is mainly for local consumption or sale. Artisanal fishing uses traditional fishing techniques such as rod and tackle, fishing arrows and harpoons, cast nets, and sometimes small traditional fishing boats.

Fisheries located in national marine sanctuaries are usually encompassed by larger regional fisheries that are regulated by fisheries management plans. Fisheries management plans may include sanctuary-specific restrictions to protect sanctuary habitats, living resources, and archaeological resources, and to fulfill treaty obligations. Data that can be used to assess status and trends for this ecosystem service include: catch levels by species and species groups; and economic contributions in the form of sector-related jobs, income, sales, and tax revenue. Indirect measures include data on licensing, fleet size, fishing vessel types and sizes, days at sea, and commodity prices.

Subsistence Harvest – The capacity to support non-commercial harvesting of food and utilitarian products

Subsistence harvesting is the practice of collecting marine resources (e.g., fish, shellfish, marine mammals, seabirds, roe, and algae) either for food or for creating products that are utilitarian in nature (e.g., traditional medicine, shelter, clothing, fuel and tools) that are not for sale or income generation. Subsistence is conducted principally for personal and family use, and sometimes for community use, and may be distributed through ceremony, sharing, gifting, and bartering. Some people depend on subsistence fishing for food security and may have few other sources of income to provision their food and nutrition needs. Harvesting for subsistence is also a cultural or traditional practice for some people. It typically operates on a smaller and more local scale than commercial fishing. Natural resources that support subsistence harvest may also be used as ceremonial regalia or for cultural traditions, and therefore support other ecosystem services, including Heritage, Sense of Place, and Ornamentals. Data from surveys, tribal and indigenous knowledge and the status of fishery stocks can be used to assess the status and trends of this service.

Water — Providing water for human use by minimizing pollution, including nutrients, sediments, pathogens, chemicals, and trash

Clean water is considered a final ecosystem service when the natural environment is improving water quality for human consumption or other direct use (e.g., irrigation). Although sanctuary ecosystems often function to improve water quality, most do not result in the final ecosystem service of clean water for human use. For most natural resources, improving water quality in a sanctuary is a supporting or intermediate ecosystem service that may, for example, result in better water quality for fish species that are then enjoyed by commercial or recreational anglers, safer water in which to swim, or improved water clarity for diving. These are aspects of other final ecosystem services and the water quality itself is an indicator that is inherently important to them; however, ONMS does not include this aspect of clean water in condition reports because it would result in a double counting of its ecosystem service value. Instead, ONMS evaluates clean water as a final ecosystem service, where the natural environment is improving water for human consumption, such as drinking water, or for irrigation (e.g., through filtration or suitability for desalination). In this way, the benefits of management policies and actions that improve water quality are captured separately, but in relation to the relevant final ecosystem services they support.

Ornamentals — Resources collected for decorative, aesthetic, or ceremonial purposes

In sanctuaries where the collection of ornamental products is not prohibited or is allowed under permit, they are taken for their aesthetic or material value for artwork, souvenirs, fashion, handicrafts, jewelry, or display. This includes live animals for aquaria and trade, pearls, shells, corals, sea stars, furs, feathers, ivory, and more. Some, particularly animals for the aquarium trade, are sold commercially and can be valued like other commodities; others cannot. Some products may be decorative and relatively non-functional, others culturally significant and specifically functional, such as ceremonial regalia. Status and trends for the use of ornamentals can also be evaluated using indicators such as the number of permitted or other collectors, frequency and intensity of collection operations, and sales.

Biotechnology — Medicinal and other products derived or manufactured from sanctuary animals or plants for commercial use

Biochemical and genetic resources, medicines, chemical models, and test organisms are all potential products that can be derived or sourced from national marine sanctuaries. Biochemical resources include compounds extracted from marine animals and plants and used to develop or manufacture foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and other products (e.g., omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil, or microbes for spill or waste bioremediation). Genetic resources are the genetic content of marine organisms used for animal and plant breeding and for biotechnology. Natural resources can also be used as a model for new products (e.g., the development of fiber optic technology, based on the properties of sponge spicules). Items harvested for food consumption are evaluated in Commercial and Subsistence Harvest.

Collections of products for biotechnology applications may be allowed under permit, and sanctuary permit databases can also be used to gauge demand and collection activity within a given national marine sanctuary. The value of commercially sold products associated with biotechnology may also be available.

Energy — Use of ecosystem-derived materials or processes for the production of energy

In the offshore environment, energy production sources are considered to be either non-renewable (oil and gas) or renewable (wind, solar, tidal, wave, or thermal). While oil and gas technically are ecosystem-sourced and may be renewable over a time frame measured in millions of years, as an ecosystem service, they are not subject to management decisions in human time frames; therefore, they are not considered an ecosystem service in this section. The activities and management actions related to hydrocarbon production are, however, considered elsewhere in condition reports, primarily with regard to resource threats, impacts, and protection measures.

In contrast, “renewable” forms of energy that depend on ecosystem materials and processes operating over shorter time periods are evaluated. Indicators of status and trends for these energy sources include the types and number of permitted or licensed experimental or permanent operations, energy production, revenues generated, and jobs created. Indirect indicators that inform trends and provide some predictive value include social and market trends, energy costs, and expected demand based on service market populations trends.

Regulating (buffers to change)

Coastal protection — Natural features that control water movement and/or wind energy, thus protecting habitat, property, heritage resources and coastlines

Coastal and estuarine ecosystems can buffer the potentially destructive energy of environmental disturbances, such as floods, tidal surges and storm waves, and wind. Wetlands, kelp forests, mangroves, seagrass beds, and reefs of various types all absorb some of the energy of local disturbances, protecting themselves, submerged habitats closer to shore, intertidal ecosystems, and emergent land masses. They also can trap sediments and promote future protection through shoaling. They can also become sources of sediments for coastal dunes and beaches that control flooding and protect coastal properties from wave energy and the impacts of sea-level rise.

The value of coastal protection can be estimated by evaluating the basis of the value of vulnerable coastal properties and infrastructure and modeled estimates of losses expected under different qualities of coastal ecosystems (replacement cost). Levels of historical change under different energy scenarios can be used to support these estimates. Public polls can also reveal information on willingness to pay that is used to value this service.