Marine and Coastal Ecosystem Services: A report on ecosystem services in the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area (Pncima) on the British Columbia coast cover

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With the launch of Canada's Ocean Strategy in 2002, the Canadian government formally recognized the need to take action to help maintain the health of Canada's ocean environments. The strategy identified several Large Ocean Management Areas (LOMAs) that would be priority areas for developing integrated management plans aimed at preserving healthy, vibrant ecosystems and human communities in these regions. One of these LOMAs is an area off Canada's North Pacific coast called the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area (Pncima).

By definition, integrated management plans require a significant understanding of the values, processes, and existing socio-economic elements in the area under consideration. When possible, scientific information should be used to inform decision-making. A growing and necessary body of information to consider in these types of management planning processes is commonly known as natural capital and ecosystem services.

The purpose of this report is to present known information about ecosystem services and to identify gaps in information that should be filled to support the implementation of an integrated ocean management plan in the Pncima. The maintenance of ecosystem goods and services is considered in this application as a foundation for sustainable economic and social development in the marine environment.

Utilizing ecosystem services concepts and elements in the marine planning field requires a clear accounting of the range of ecosystem services provided by the coastal and marine environments.

The ocean may not be a top-of-mind issue for most people, but it has an impact on everyone's well-being. The seas provide a significant amount of the food we eat and supply approximately 50 per cent of the oxygen in the air we breathe. The Earth is habitable for humans largely because of the ocean's role in regulating our climate. In Pncima, marine and coastal ecosystems also play a role in accommodating a unique society and support the local economy in many ways:

  • Fisheries provide up to one-quarter of regional employment income, amounting to more than $2.6 million annually on the Central Coast alone.
  • Natural structures mitigate the effects of extreme weather events, potentially saving thousands of lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  • As a popular destination for nature-based recreation, the Pncima region attracts more than $60 million in tourism revenues each year.
  • Thanks to the pristine nature of the marine environment, any number of discoveries — from learning how diatoms sequester carbon to the extraction of anti-cancer drugs from our marine resources — could distinguish the region as a centre for scientific innovation and enterprise.

Despite the abundance of benefits the ocean provides, human beings have mapped more of the moon than the sea floor. Knowledge gaps exist with respect to our understanding of marine biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and the effects of global warming and climate change.

If decisions on marine use, management, and conservation are to be effective, they must be informed by a good understanding of ecosystem services. To realize this, more priority must be placed on research, mapping, and valuation of these services, the identification of ecosystem indicators and thresholds to measure management activities, and the interaction between ecosystem services and the various scales across which they operate.

In addition to developing a comprehensive base of evidence to support the protection of key ecosystem services, more research will help reveal both what we do and don't know about the Pncima region, and how to balance this new knowledge with existing social values.

This report offers suggestions for conservation objectives that should be considered in protecting ecosystem services — particularly those of major significance to the Pncima region. These objectives hinge largely on three separate commitments from the federal government to pursue further research and monitoring, and to design appropriate finance, policy, and governance structures for vulnerable marine resources. More specifically, the commitments and associated conservation objectives entail the following:

  • A Commitment to Further Research: Lack of knowledge with respect to ecosystem services is due both to the lack of relevant data and to the multivariate complexity of the concept. Both forms of research should be pursued in Pncima.
  • A Commitment to Monitoring: In order for the above research to provide lasting benefits, there must be a clear commitment to monitoring in Pncima, and the question of what to monitor is as important as the commitment to monitor.
  • A Commitment to Governance Structures: The former two commitments rest on a commitment to the design of appropriate finance, policy, and governance structures. Ecosystem services need to become a factor in policy decisionmaking, which requires an appropriate framework and governance structure.

In light of the federal government's commitment to move forward with a marine planning process in the Pncima, there is a need to define and secure agreement among stakeholders, government, and First Nations in the region regarding conservation objectives for this process. As a contribution to the discussion about conservation objectives for the Pncima, the following objectives are recommended:

  • Protect ecologically viable proportions of each habitat type from the pressures of human activity to maintain ecosystem processes.
  • Establish management systems that maintain the biological integrity, resiliency, and productivity of the marine and coastal ecosystems at a range of spatial scales.
  • Rehabilitate under-represented and/or rare habitat types to a state of historic functional and ecological integrity.
  • Establish spatial zoning for specific industrial practices to minimize the risk and probability of human-induced disasters to important ecosystem processes and biological communities.
  • Maintain primary productivity within the bounds of natural variation.
  • Establish strategies to reduce the risk of negative environmental impacts from industrial activity in or near the marine environment.
  • Sustain ecological and evolutionary processes within an accepted range of variability.

As a society that is highly interdependent with its surrounding environments and ecosystems, we need a deeper understanding of how our oceans function and what they offer us if we hope to maintain the ocean's essential services in the long term. We hope that the information in this report will assist those making decisions and directing research that will inform ocean conservation and management decision in the Pncima.

A companion brochure, Not Just a Pretty View: An Overview of What the Oceans Do for Us, summarizes this report. Click here to download (PDF).