Can Marine Markets & Ocean Zoning Help Save the Seas?

Tundi Spring Agardy

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill reminds us once again that economy depends on ecology and one man’s cheap solution is often another’s cost.  This was a central theme of the Marine Ecosystem Services meeting in Palo Alto, and will be again at next week’s Katoomba Meeting in Hanoi.  Here we examine two powerful tools to help preserve the oceans by recognizing their value.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill reminds us once again that economy depends on ecology and one man’s cheap solution is often another’s cost.   This was a central theme of the Marine Ecosystem Services meeting in Palo Alto, and will be again at next week’s Katoomba Meeting in Hanoi.   Here we examine two powerful tools to help preserve the oceans by recognizing their true value.

NOTE: This article has been adapted from a forthcoming book by Tundi Agardy:
Ocean Zoning: Making Marine Management More Effective, Earthscan Ltd., London.   It is the eighth in a series of articles leading up to and supporting the 17th Katoomba Meeting (see “Katoomba XVII Online”, right), which takes place on June 23 and 24 in Hanoi, Vietnam.  

17 June 2010 | For millennia, civilizations have sustained themselves on nature’s bounty – often destroying that bounty in the process.   The further away that bounty, the greater its destruction, and all because our modern economy fails to account for the value of nature’s services.

That began to change with the advent of Payment for Ecosystem Services schemes that seek to preserve nature by recognizing the value of the clean air, clean water, and other ecosystem services she provides.   These schemes are expanding rapidly on land, and the concept is now being adapted for the sea in the form of investments in Marine Ecosystem Services (MARES).

MARES schemes were the focus of the most recent Katoomba Meeting, which took place in Palo Alto, California.   They will also be a central focus of next week’s Katoomba Meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam (see “Katoomba XVII Online”, right).

Business Recognizing Risks

The business community is beginning to see real opportunities for risk reduction and the profit-making through the development of markets. Some of these markets will likely be modeled on the carbon emissions markets of the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) and the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), with polluters buying credits from companies or property owners that have acted to reduce water quality impacts. Other financial mechanisms likely to develop include wetlands mitigation-type markets extended into the marine zone, marine biodiversity offsets, marine species banking, and habitat management supported by the very industries that realize the benefits: the fishing industry protecting nursery habitats, for instance, or the tourism industry protecting mangrove for its water filtration and shoreline stabilization services.

Investment of private sector in marine management is needed because public sector resources to support marine management are insufficient nearly everywhere in the world. But innovative financing will not spring up magically – the regulatory environment must set the stage first.  

Marine Spatial Planning

An important new development in marine policy is marine spatial planning and ocean zoning.

Comprehensive ocean zoning – a form of spatial management that is a natural outgrowth of the kind of zoning we practice on land the world over – allows managers to highlight ecologically important areas as well as ecosystem vulnerabilities and sensitivities. Zoning can streamline permitting and lessen confusion and uncertainties for businesses and venture capitalists. In addition, zoning that clarifies use (and in some cases, property) rights in the marine environment can create the foundation for true stewardship. Several countries in the Southeast Asia region are embarking on zoning exercises – most notably Vietnam, which recently is servingserved as a demonstration for utilizing the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission’s guidelines on marine spatial planning.

Ocean zoning can and should be coupled to innovative financing mechanisms for coastal management, such as PES schemes. There is much potential for ocean zoning   to play a major role in the development of such markets, for two important reasons:

  • zoning establishes clear rights and responsibilities, which is a reassurance to business investors; and
  • zoning plans could include “trading zones” where payments for ecosystem services transactions could be established.

In “trading zones”, for example, developers could potentially buy credits for wetlands protection from environmental groups or private land owners, or the insurance industry could invest in barrier beach protection in order to minimize their own risks.

Establishing Rights

The issue of rights is an important one. Clarification of rights can greatly improve the ability to reverse degradation and improve ocean health. This is because no government is willing or able to shoulder full responsibility for ocean management.   Beyond that, there is profit to be made by protecting ecosystem services via ocean zoning.  

Yet with the exception of the highly regulated energy industry, the private sector has to date avoided becoming involved in management of the oceans. That is, while industries such as commercial fisheries and shipping have been granted use privileges, there has been little private sector interest in investing in coastal and ocean management measures to sustain the benefits that well-managed ecosystems could provide. This is true for myriad reasons:

  • there is an enduring assumption that the public sector will manage ocean resources and space sufficiently,
  • without the development of markets, the vast majority of social and economic values associated with coastal and ocean areas remain unaccounted for in capital market transactions, and
  • the very nature of oceans with its commons property regime has required innovative new approaches to involving the private sector that are untested at large scales.

However, new examples of public/private partnerships are indeed emerging, as governance arrangements become more creative and effective.

Protected Areas and Restricted Fishing

One example is the coupling of marine protected areas (MPAs) and territorial user right fisheries (TURFs).   Though seemingly contradictory, both approaches are commonly advocated as solutions to failures in fisheries.   Protected areas (or zones of protection) limit harvest to certain areas, but may enhance profits outside via spillover.   TURFs incentivize local stewardship, but may be compromised when the TURF is too small to retain the offspring of adult fish in the TURF.   If one assumes strategically-sited MPAs may be an effective complement to spatial property-rights based fisheries, increasing both fishery profits and abundance, then it is logical that codifying these public/private partnerships within a zoning scheme could be maximally strategic and effective.  

Ocean zoning is a planning tool that comes straight out of the land use planning methodologies developed in the 1970s for use by primarily by local governments.   As on land, it allows a strategic allocation of uses based on a determination of an area’s suitability for those uses, and reduction of user conflicts by separating incompatible activities.

There are generally two components to an ocean zoning plan:

  • a map that depicts the zones and
  • a set of regulations or standards applicable to each type of zone created.

While the concept of wholesale zoning of the oceans has been slow to gain public acceptance, it is increasingly popular with marine resource managers and conservationists, and many countries are now experimenting with the approach at national, state or provincial, or local scales.

Implementing a zoning plan does not require a wholesale restructuring of government, but it does require that attention be paid to the governance structures in place, and the capacity of government to work with, in addition to regulating, user groups. The integration of management (and planning) which is so needed, and which ocean zoning can deliver, is rarely achievable with conventional government structures, at least those typically found in coastal countries around the world. Rather, effective governance requires greater coordination within government, and improved governance beyond government, including engagement of the private sector and the markets.

For shared coastal and marine resources, regional planning and/or governance agreements may provide an important foundation for the development of ocean zoning and the development of ecosystem services markets. These regional agreements can capitalize on better understandings of costs and benefits accruing from shared responsibilities in conserving the marine environment. One of the best examples of a large scale regional agreement with the potential to influence market development comes from the Southeast Asia region. The Mekong River Commission is a regional body, with representation from Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, which monitors and attempts to mitigate human impacts on the Mekong River watershed. This cooperative planning body serves as a potential model for how to launch regional marine spatial planning, further out to sea.

Integrated management of watersheds, land use planning, and impact assessment are key to protecting coastal sites.   Complex problems require comprehensive solutions.   For this reason, tackling the issues of loss and degradation of marine areas by addressing single threats to these environments will not be productive.   Effective management of these crucial areas means coordinated pollution controls, development restrictions, fisheries management, and scientific research.   To be truly holistic, integrated management of marine nursery areas also requires complementary watershed management and land use planning to ensure that negative impacts do not reach nursery areas from afar.

Using zoning in an integrated approach to management allows decision makers to understand and quantify the trade-offs to be made when coastal development, environmental degradation through waste discharge, or exploitation of marine areas occurs. Zoning plans and the permitting procedures which go along with zoning help avoid development that is potentially environmentally harmful or which puts at risk the ecosystem processes and services that these areas provide.

Ocean zoning provides many benefits over smaller scale interventions: it can help overcome the shortcomings of protected areas and other conventional management measures in moving us towards sustainability; it is based on a recognition of the relative ecological importance and environmental vulnerabilities of different areas; it allows harmonization with terrestrial land use planning; it can help better articulate private sector roles and responsibilities and maximize private sector investment by allowing free market principles to work in concert with government protections, and it moves us away from the terrestrial focus of traditional integrated coastal management efforts to more effective, integrated, and holistic environmental management that fully includes uses of, and impacts on, the oceans.

Tundi Spring Agardy is Director of the Forest Trends Marine Ecosystem Services (MARES) Program and an internationally renowned expert in marine conservation, with extensive field and policy experience in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, North America, and the Pacific. Tundi specializes in coastal planning and assessment, marine protected areas, fisheries management and ocean zoning, and has published widely in these fields.   She has served as Senior Scientist for WWF and began Conservation International’s Global Marine Program. She also led the coastal portion of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and is a contributing editor to the Marine Ecosystems and Management (MEAM) newsletter.   She can be reached at tagardy(at)
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Katoomba XVII Online