The ocean is enormous, supporting a vast array of life while providing food, fuel, recreation, and spiritual rejuvenation. But efforts to conserve the ocean, though valiant, are meager compared to the scale of the threats to the ocean. Ocean conservation advocates have achieved many notable successes, such as dramatic reductions in certain kinds of pollution, the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and major improvements in fishery management in some areas of the world. However, a recent analysis that the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) participated in suggests that 40 percent of the ocean is still strongly impacted by a range of threats, including shipping, the modification of rivers and estuaries, coastal development, pollution, and overfishing. How can we scale conservation efforts up to match the ocean's vastness and the severity of these threats?
To answer this question, we must first accurately diagnose the problem. Conventional markets, which drive so much of mass human behavior, only value a few of the many goods and services that the ocean provides, like fish and oil. The critically important ocean processes that produce fish, regulate the climate, assimilate wastes, and provide all of the other goods and services on which the diversity of ocean life and we humans depend are generally not valued by markets. Because markets see value only in parts of the ocean, and not in the whole, the valuable pieces are extracted and the rest is degraded.
Conservation has been pushing back against market forces, among the most powerful forces in the world, in the form of regulation. While regulations like water quality standards and MPAs can be very effective, they often depend on high levels of enforcement because they are working against market forces and the incentives to exploit valuable resources without stewarding the ecosystems that support them. Regulations in this context are often perceived as threats to livelihood and human welfare, resulting in opposition and conflict. It is not surprising that it typically takes many years and sometimes decades to get ocean conservation measures in place.
Conservation has been like playing soccer uphill. No matter how skillfully and energetically we kick the ball; it keeps rolling back, forcing us to scramble continuously to keep it up field. And in much of the world, the field is very steep -- the pressure to overexploit ocean resources is particularly strong because few alternative sources of livelihood, food, fiber, and other resources are available.
To scale up ocean conservation, we need to level the playing field so the ball rolls into the conservation goal. This means ensuring markets work for conservation, instead of against it. In our new paper, just published in Biological Reviews, my coauthors and I evaluate the increasing number of tools that are available for doing just that. Catch shares have helped fisheries meet their conservation goals while increasing profits. Payments for ecosystem services are resulting in improved coastal watershed conservation. Mitigation banking has helped restore mangrove forests, salt marshes, and oyster reefs. Water quality markets (cap and trade programs) have helped farmers reduce polluted runoff. And new markets that value other ecosystem services, such as the amazingly efficient carbon storage capacity of mangrove forests and even the recreational value of coral reefs, are rapidly emerging. We term this collection of tools "eco-markets."
Market-based ocean conservation is no panacea. Governments must still create and enforce the rules and constraints that any market needs to avoid bad outcomes. Moreover, many serious challenges remain. These market-based conservation tools must be very carefully designed and implemented to be effective. New kinds of secure privileges must be created that allow coastal stewards to benefit from their own conservation efforts must be created, and these privileges need to extend over whole areas, not just pieces of the ecosystem. New social contracts must be forged to hold the beneficiaries of these privileges accountable to their stewardship responsibilities. Strenuous efforts to overcome these challenges are justified though, because the new economies that result will value the ocean, empower its stewards, and create the potential for ocean conservation to become as large as the ocean itself.