Projects

Ecosystem services provided by Gulf of Mexico habitats: Tools, valuation, and application

Abstract

There is currently a dearth of primary valuation studies of ecosystems services (ES) provided by important Gulf of Mexico habitats. Therefore, it is difficult to include these important contributions to human well-being in any decision making process related to the management of our coastal and marine resources. 

To address the need for ES identification, valuation, and application in the Gulf, our multidisciplinary team of natural and social scientists, and education and outreach specialists will: 1) Isolate the biophysical and ecological functions of target habitats (marsh, mangrove, and oyster reefs) as they relate to provisioning of ES, 2) Identify ES that are both salient to the public and easily measured, 3) Quantify preferences of identified ES provided by the target habitats in monetary terms, 4) Develop the ES valuation module of the Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GOMA) Spatial Viewer, 5) Implement education and outreach activities and materials, and 6) Provide decision support tools to end users.

Our approach will be to link the values of the ES back through the relevant ecosystems to specific habitats, and from there to the various types of resource use decisions such as fishing, oil and gas extraction, marine transportation, beneficial use of dredge material, and others, while taking into account climate change stressors, such as sea level rise and freshwater inflow. Monetary values of ES will be quantified through a Gulf wide survey. We will present our results and modeling via an ES module for the GOMA Spatial Viewer, a web-based Geographic Information System, currently under development. Traditional dissemination methods will also be utilized to share the information in a readily usable form with stakeholders and decision makers at all levels. We will pilot the developed tool within the decision making framework at the local, state, and regional planning level with our partners.

Objectives

The objectives of the proposed work are:

  1. To isolate the biophysical and ecological functions of target habitats as they relate to provisioning of ecosystem services (ES);
  2. To identify ES that are both salient to the public and easily measured;
  3. To quantify preferences of identified ES provided by the target habitats in monetary terms;
  4. To develop the ES valuation module of the Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GOMA) Spatial Viewer;
  5. To implement education and outreach activities and materials;
  6. To provide decision support tools to end users.

Methodology

The habitats under study (marsh, mangrove, and oyster reefs) have many services in common such as nutrient cycling, recreational and commercial fishing, and storm surge protection, among others, all of which contribute to final services or are final services themselves. The first step of the proposed project will be the understanding of the bio-physical and ecological functions that lead to provisioning of ES. The impending impacts of climate change on the ecological functioning of coastal and marine habitats heighten the interest and need of efforts towards the valuation of the services provided. Indeed, such information is essential to predict, and adapt to, how climate change could impact human welfare. Two of the most pressing climate change stressors in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM) are relative sea level rise and diminished freshwater inflow into our estuaries. We recognize that there is an environmental component as well as a human influence related to both of these. Given the impact that climate and anthropogenic changes will have on the selected habitats, which can then alter the provisioning of ES and their associated values, we will incorporate scenarios of those changes in the quantification of monetary values.

One of the central challenges in the valuation of ES is that some services have an intermediate role and act as inputs to final services (e.g., nutrient regulation is an input to water quality, and habitat and water regulation are inputs that impact recreational and commercial fishing) and as a result their values are subsumed into the final service. Here, following Boyd and Krupnick (2009) and based on interviews and systematic focus group interactions, we will identify and prioritize those final ES that are salient to the public and can, therefore, be valued. Given that resource management is driven by habitat management, this project will develop a technique for ‘mapping’ the final ES values back to intermediate services where appropriate. Comprehensively measuring the economic benefits associated with different ES from the GoM calls for a range of valuation methods such as market analysis, survey, and secondary studies.

To display the results of the ES valuation we will also develop and demonstrate a management tool (the ES valuation model of the Spatial Viewer) driven by needs assessment conducted at the local and state level. Discussions with our partners, local, and state decision makers and natural resource managers, will take place early on in the project to understand what kinds of tools are necessary to inform their decision making process and fit within their decision framework. At completion of the tool development phase, tool and communication products will be evaluated by target stakeholder groups during a half day workshop.

The piloting phase will allow establishing a link between physical and social sciences and management policies. The ES values and tools generated during the proposed work will be transferred to the identified end-users, who will apply them through policy levers within their established decision frameworks. Their use will inform the decision making process at the local, state, and regional level as detailed below.  

A critical component of this project will be education and outreach activities. The goals are to create a comprehensive education and outreach program that will (1) enhance public understanding of ES values of specific habitats; (2) help identify tools and data needed by resource managers and other stakeholders to better inform local planning and decision making; (3) produce resource materials adapted to stakeholder needs; and (4) facilitate behavioral changes through education and communication of the ES values materials and research.

Rationale

The overall goal of the proposed work is to create a system for aiding in the management of GoM and coastal resources through explicitly recognizing the effects of those management decisions on ES and their value. Focusing specifically on oyster reefs, salt marshes, and mangroves, we have initially identified the associated ES that are supported by these resources. We propose to perform monetary valuation for the range of ES provided by these environmental assets as identified at the Bay St. Louis Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Services workshop, held in June of 2010 (Yoskowitz et al., 2010).

To accomplish this we will link the values of the ES back through the relevant ecosystems to the specific natural assets identified in the RFP, and from there to the various types of resource use decisions such as fishing, oil and gas extraction, marine transportation, beneficial use of dredge material, and others. We will present our results and modeling using the GOMA Spatial Viewer, a web-based Geographic Information System, currently under development. Traditional dissemination methods will also be utilized (workshops, printed-audio-video media, papers) to share the information in a readily usable form with stakeholders and decision makers at all levels. Finally, we will pilot the decision making framework at the local (U. of Houston – Clear Lake Environmental Management Program), state (Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration), and regional planning level (the Northern Gulf Institute’s Integrated Ecosystem Assessment project).

The proposed project will begin to address the dearth of information regarding ES in the Gulf, the processes that create the services, where they exist geo-spatially, and the critically important values that society places on them. The BP oil spill highlighted the fact that very little is known about the ES provided by GoM environments beyond recreational values and food and fiber. Yet, intuitively Gulf residents know that these natural systems are valuable beyond their commercial application. The results obtained from a query that was run on the Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Services Valuation Database (GecoServ), for GoM specific studies, show there are only nine studies on marsh provisioning of ES (disturbance regulation, habitat, raw materials, net primary production, recreation, and waste regulation), two studies on oysters (recreation), and no studies on mangroves. This telling statistic reinforces the need for primary ES valuation studies to be conducted in the Gulf. The proposed efforts will allow us to take the first steps towards filling existing gaps in the ES valuation literature. As the gap analysis results show (Plantier-Santos et al, 2011) there is currently a lack of information for valuation studies associated with gas and climate regulation, nutrient cycling, and pollutant attenuation, the intermediate and final services this proposal is focusing on.

The stated choice technique that will be utilized for valuation of the non-market ES in the proposed study is novel in its use for coastal and marine valuation but is widely used by marketing, transportation, decision analysis, and environmental valuation research in the terrestrial environment (Siikamaki and Layton, 2007). Only one identifiable study has used this technique in the Gulf, to measure habitat and water supply values associated with the Florida Everglades (Milon and Scrogin, 2006).

While the immediate results of this project will be to value ES attributed to specific Gulf habitats and make that information readily available to the stakeholders and decision makers, the long-term impact of this project would be its influence on how our coastal natural assets are effectively managed. The values of GoM ES cannot be taken into account in natural resource decision making if they are not known. The work performed in this project, leveraged with the many initiatives already taking place in the region, will provide a significant leap forward in the utilization of ES for decision making, leading to more complete and efficient decisions. This project will help advance the GOMA regional activities and address some of the research priorities identified in the Gulf of Mexico Research Plan (GMRP) (Sempier et al., 2009) and the results will see immediate use by three GOMA Priority Issue Teams (PITs).

Results

Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Services Viewer