There is growing demand for information regarding the impacts of decisions on ecosystem services and human benefits. Despite the large and growing quantity of published ecosystem services research, there remains a substantial gap between this research and the information required to support decisions. Research often provides models and tools that do not fully link social and ecological systems; are too complex, specialized, and costly to use; and are targeted to outcomes that differ from those needed by decision makers. Decision makers require cost-effective, straightforward, transferable, scalable, meaningful, and defensible methods that can be readily understood. We provide illustrative examples of these gaps between research and practice and describe how researchers can make their work relevant to decision makers by using Benefit Relevant Indicators (BRIs) and choosing models appropriate for particular decision contexts. We use examples primarily from the United States, including cases that illustrate varying degrees of success in closing these gaps. We include a discussion of the challenges and opportunities researchers face in adapting their work to meet the needs of practitioners.
Ecosystem Services and Uses
We analyze scientific literature that report tools to spatially model ecosystem services (ES). In the 65 articles reviewed, the most used model starting in 2001 was SWAT and starting in 2009 the most commonly used was InVEST. Eighty percent of the scientific articles have been published from 2010 to 2015 suggesting that spatial modeling of ES is an emergent research field. Only 4 of the 9 tools encountered in our review are backed by papers, the others only offer grey literature. The spatial modeling of ES is mainly done in the U.S.A. and China, and the most frequently evaluated ES are related to hydrological services (water provision and quality treatment), climate regulation and soil formation. Most of the studies are done along hydrological basins, at different spatial scales and based upon different map resolution ranging from 20 to 900 m. With concern, we observe the lack of validation of the spatial models and the tools’ lack of integrated validation modules. As long as the tools used to spatially model ecosystem services continue to be used as black boxes, the models they generate will suffer from a high degree of uncertainty and will not be reliable for decision making purposes.
Marine spatial planning (MSP) is an emerging responsibility of resource managers around the United States and elsewhere. A key proposed advantage of MSP is that it makes tradeoffs in resource use and sector (stakeholder group) values explicit, but doing so requires tools to assess tradeoffs. We extended tradeoff analyses from economics to simultaneously assess multiple ecosystem services and the values they provide to sectors using a robust, quantitative, and transparent framework. We used the framework to assess potential conflicts among offshore wind energy, commercial fishing, and whale-watching sectors in Massachusetts and identify and quantify the value from choosing optimal wind farm designs that minimize conflicts among these sectors. Most notably, we show that using MSP over conventional planning could prevent >$1 million dollars in losses to the incumbent fishery and whale-watching sectors and could generate >$10 billion in extra value to the energy sector. The value of MSP increased with the greater the number of sectors considered and the larger the area under management. Importantly, the framework can be applied even when sectors are not measured in dollars (e.g., conservation). Making tradeoffs explicit improves transparency in decision-making, helps avoid unnecessary conflicts attributable to perceived but weak tradeoffs, and focuses debate on finding the most efficient solutions to mitigate real tradeoffs and maximize sector values. Our analysis demonstrates the utility, feasibility, and value of MSP and provides timely support for the management transitions needed for society to address the challenges of an increasingly crowded ocean environment.
To demonstrate how ecosystem service tradeoff models might help decision makers predict the effects of proposed management approaches, SeaPlan collaborated with research teams from New England and the West Coast in 2009 to conduct a two and a half year pilot study analyzing multi-use issues in Northern Massachusetts Bay. The area includes active maritime commerce, two provisional wind energy areas and well-studied, protected waters in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The two research teams applied different modeling approaches intended to support resource managers during decision making processes. One team led by researchers from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) used the concept of efficiency frontiers from the field of economics to examine how siting an offshore wind farm would affect the ecological and economic aspects of commercial fishing and whale watching. The other team led by researchers from Boston University and University of Vermont used a complex platform called Multiscale Integrated Model of Ecosystem Services (MIMES) to simulate the interplay between commercial fishing, whale watching, offshore wind energy and conservation. To make the technical results understandable to a broad audience, researchers created a user-friendly interface called the Marine Integrated Decision Analysis System (MIDAS). The Northern Massachusetts Bay pilot study demonstrated that ecosystem service tradeoff models can improve understanding of complex interactions within human-marine ecosystems and help visualize likely outcomes resulting from management actions taken across multiple sectors. The research suggests such tools can point to options that are more comprehensive and cost-effective when compared to typical sector-by-sector ocean management.
In order to perform a science-based evaluation of ecosystem service tradeoffs, research is needed on the impacts to ecosystem services from multiple human activities and their associated stressors (‘impact-pathways’). Whereas research frameworks and models abound, the evidence-base detailing these pathways for trade-off evaluation has not been well characterized. Toward this end, we review the evidence for impact-pathways using estuaries as a case study, focusing on seagrass and shellfish. Keyword searches of peer-reviewed literature revealed 2379 studies for a broad suite of impact-pathways, but closer inspection demonstrated that the vast majority of these made connections only rhetorically, and only 4.6% (based on a subset of 250 studies) actually evaluated impacts of stressors on ecosystem services. Furthermore, none of the reviewed studies tested pathways based on metrics of ecosystem services value that are most relevant to beneficiaries. Multi-activity tradeoff evaluation and management will require a concerted effort to structure ecosystem-based research around impact-pathways.