Ocean conservationists have been arguing for a long time that marine reserves are a good investment, because they help sustain many ecosystem services, including fisheries and tourism. Various studies have helped to quantify the value generated by marine reserves, but a new study puts it all together and presents a convincing value proposition for marine reserves. Now all we need are investors who can appreciate that value proposition and make it work economically, and the right combination of rules and governance that will make these new kinds of markets – ecomarkets – viable.
The benefits of marine reserves often outweigh the costs of establishing and maintaining them. You would think that there would be great demand for them, but instead the pace of marine reserve establishment has been slow and conflict-ridden. Why? Because many groups of people benefit from the status quo, and would suffer short-term economic harm from marine reserves. Also, the benefits of marine reserves take several years to accrue, while the costs are immediate. And while some of the benefits are fairly concrete and flow to discrete user groups – like lower fishing costs and higher fishery yields near the borders – others are less concrete (e.g., biodiversity and aesthetics) and flow to many user groups (e.g. tourists and people who like natural environments), including some (e.g., future generations) that don’t have much say in present day decisions.
So theoretically, marine reserves can pay for themselves and then some. But right now, few people want to invest in them. How do we change that?
Investors need to know what the return is likely to be on their investment, and they need to capture that return directly. They need to know that the risks of losing their money or not making the expected return are fairly well characterized and manageable. And the return must be commensurate with the risks. User groups which would suffer short term costs need assurance that they will benefit over the longer term and may need alternative ways to make money and feed their families while the benefits of marine reserves accrue.
This recent study represents one of the best available estimates of the potential return on investments in marine reserves (see our study for ideas on how to use actual markets to capture economic benefits of keeping ocean ecosystems healthy and intact). But a business case must address these other factors if it is to attract investors. And because marine reserves protect public trust resources in the ocean, where rights and responsibilities are unclear, certain enabling conditions must be in place for a marine reserve business case to be viable.