Understanding trade-offs to maximise the benefits from living marine natural capital (Module 7)

Published: 10 February 2017

By MERP scientist, Prof. Mike Heath


A new project has been funded within the overarching Marine Ecosystem Research Programme (MERP), following a call from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for proposals in September 2016. The call text for this body of work was:

Application of the novel tools and frameworks for decision support developed in MERP's Work Packages 1&2 to explore the trade-offs between different and competing ecosystem services that inevitably arise for particular policy options, particularly those associated with fisheries and Marine Protected Areas. This must include consideration of both monetary and non-monetary values.” 

Our proposal entitled “How can we maximise the benefits from living marine natural capital?” was successfully funded and started in January 2017. The project team includes: Bangor University, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) and University of Strathclyde (lead). 

The project aims to:

  • Expose the monetary and non-monetary implications of trade-offs between provisioning and tourism/leisure/recreation (TLR) services.
  • Determine the ways in which trade-offs may be exacerbated or alleviated by social, economic and cultural factors which underlie user conflicts.
  • Work with stakeholders to scope the potential of a range of marine management options to alleviate conflicts, and work towards maximising the overall value of natural capital.

Through this new funding we will conduct experiments on a coupled social-economic-ecological system to test hypotheses about alternative management controls, and support future management and policy decisions. Such experiments are clearly not feasible in the real world, so we have to carry them out in virtual systems based on our computational mathematical and statistical models of particular marine regions; we have chosen the west of Scotland and the Celtic Sea as case study areas.

The scientific innovation in the project will be to link a) models of the marine ecology in these regions, with b) models representing the economic and cultural valuation of living marine ecosystem services, and c) models representing the management measures to regulate human activities affecting the marine ecology, for example constraints on commercial fisheries.

We will use output from this coupled system to support evaluation of cultural values that cannot be parameterised in models. The impact and knowledge exchange innovation will be to involve stakeholders in the development of story-lines describing potentially conflicting desirable and undesirable outcomes and alternative scenarios for management measures, and in the evaluation of the results to underpin ongoing management and policy decisions.

The project will deliver:

  • Advances in the valuations of living marine natural capital, and its response to management interventions.
  • A scientific framework for conducting virtual experiments on the integrated social-economic-ecological system.
  • A participatory scheme for engaging stakeholders in virtual experiments on the marine social-economic-ecological system.
  • Models and outputs to support strategic decisions on the sustainable use of the marine environment and understanding of cultural values, and support for Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) assessments. 

This project came about following discussions with a range of policy orientated stakeholders, which resulted in the emergence of some surprising threads of conversation. For example, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was interested in the relative values of ‘fish on a plate’ as opposed to ‘fish in the sea’. In other words, what are the benefits to society from leaving fish in the sea to support e.g. wildlife which underpin tourism, leisure and recreation services, as opposed to catching them to eat?

This theme was picked up by Marine Scotland who were interested in how marine natural capital might be utilised in efforts to reduce inequality of human health and life-expectancy in Scotland. On the one hand, it was noted that a portion of oily pelagic fish provides 7-times the human health benefit of a portion of white-fish. On the other hand, the health benefits of exercise and engagement in the natural environment are well known, so can we harness the abundance of marine wildlife and the marine environment to assist in the goal of levelling opportunity and reducing health care costs? These are surprisingly high-level, strategic goals, but the clearly articulated link to the marine ecosystem and MERP science is intriguing and interesting.

At a more ‘coal-face’ level, Defra policy staff were keen that MERP science should contribute as much as possible to the evidence base for MSFD indicators, and in the decision making for how the UK should manage its seas to meet targets.

The ‘natural capital’ angle to the call text led us to think in terms of the work that has been done in the National Ecosystem Assessment and Valuing Nature programmes, and how the ecosystem services and valuation thinking in these programmes might be applied in MERP. The next logical step for MERP seemed to be to treat human society as being integrated with, and part of the natural world. This approach has strong scientific foundations in the terrestrial realm but has rarely been attempted in marine science.

The project is now well underway starting with the active engagement of stakeholders through a series of workshops in case study areas.


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01 March 2017