In the Baltic region many of us enjoy coastal holidays and some are even lucky enough to have a vacation homes situated near the coastline. Both our enjoyment of the sea and the price tag on our seaside home is directly dependent on the quality of the water. Would you swim or sail in the Baltic Sea if it was a lifeless dump or a stinking soup of poisonous algae?
These benefits obtained by the sea are examples of environmental or “ecosystem services”. The term ecosystem describes a community of animals and plants interacting with each other and with their physical environment such as soils, water, nutrients and all types of living organisms. Healthy ecosystems have always performed a multitude of essential functions for human communities –ecosystem services.
The oceans provide four types of ecosystem service:
- Provisioning – We harvest food, as well as genetic, pharmaceutical and chemical resources, fertilizer, fodder, and energy.
- Regulating – The ocean provides the oxygen (O2) that we breathe and represents the largest natural sink for carbon dioxide (CO2) on Earth. Without the carbon sequestration of our seas, CO2 content in the atmosphere would be substantially greater with severe consequences for global climate change. The seas also regulate local climate, nutrients, and unwanted pests such as toxic algal blooms, protect against extreme weather, retain sediment and store waste.
- Cultural – The sea provides us with recreational services, spiritual and historic services, scenery, education and inspiration as well as the sense of passing what we have on to future generations.
- Supporting – Examples of supporting services include biogeochemical cycles (pathways by which chemical elements move through abiotic and biotic compartments), primary production (the conversion of solar energy to biomass), food web dynamics (all processes by which nutrients are transferred from one organism to another in an ecosystem), biodiversity, habitat availability and resilience, which is the amount of disturbance or stress that an ecosystem can absorb and still remain capable of returning to its pre-disturbance state.
Ecosystem services are without a doubt the foundation for human life and development. Yet in our industrialized society, nature and its values have largely been ignored until malfunction or loss has drawn the attention to their importance. Humans have altered virtually all of Earth’s natural ecosystems in the recent centuries of resource extraction. This process has contributed to substantial gains in human well-being and economic prosperity. Yet the perception that the benefits obtained from nature are for “free” – in the sense that no one owns them or pays for them – has given rise to the threat of under-estimating the value of natural resources. Current economic prosperity, based on natural resource use, has thus been achieved at a dear cost.
Sustainable use of our natural capital or ecosystem services can only be obtained if we:
- Use resources no faster than they regenerate
- Replace the use of exhaustible resources with renewable
- Do not produce more waste than nature can absorb and circulate in bio-geochemical cycles
A global paradigm shift in marine ecosystem management is shifting focus from species to ecosystems, with humans as an integral part of the ecosystem. The ecosystem approach stresses the importance of ecosystems for socioeconomic development and strives to maintain long-term capacity of ecosystems to produce goods and services for human use.