The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) serves the American public by providing environmental intelligence from the outer edges of the solar system to the very depths of Earth’s oceans. Through NOAA’s science, service, and stewardship, the agency provides information on a wide swath of ecosystem services critical to management efforts aimed at protecting and enhancing these services for current and future generations. For example, sea level rise projections inform coastal planning to protect valuable infrastructure and recreational opportunities; climate and weather forecasts enable farmers to maximize their land’s productivity and shipping companies to navigate safely; stock assessments help provide fishermen with access to productive fishing grounds now and in the future; and habitat protection and restoration results in the direct production of many important ecosystem services as well.
To maximize the delivery of ecosystem services to society, NOAA has long recognized the importance of using an ecosystem-based management (EBM) framework. It has made great strides in integrating EBM principles into its management of coastal resources. For fisheries, NOAA has gradually moved away from single-species management to more holistic ecosystem-based strategies that reflect how species interact with each other and the environment and that rely on a wide variety of ecological information and management approaches. Of particular importance were the 1996 amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which strengthened NOAA’s ability to protect and conserve “essential fish habitat.” NOAA’s habitat protection and restoration efforts, however, provide many benefits in addition to fisheries, including improved water quality, recreational opportunities, coastal protection from storms, and carbon sequestration. NOAA also utilizes EBM principles in managing marine protected areas and its national marine sanctuaries, which support commercial, recreational, environmental, cultural, and academic objectives. Similarly, its Coastal Zone Management Program, mandated through the Coastal Zone Management Act, provides a framework for states to pursue integrated management of competing uses of the U.S. coastline while ensuring maintenance of ecological processes and sustainable uses of natural resources.
NOAA conducts and supports wide-ranging research to inform its EBM efforts. This research investigates many ecosystem attributes and functions, including how climate shifts affect marine food webs, how nutrients cycle within wetlands, how harmful algal blooms initiate and proliferate, and how oceanographic currents affect the dispersal of fish larvae. More specifically, NOAA’s Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) program supports EBM efforts by tapping into multiple perspectives and types of expertise to understand how marine ecosystems work, what benefits flow from them, what may be driving the degradation of benefits, and what options exist to stem this decline.
NOAA also has a long history of conducting and funding non-market valuations of ecosystem services relevant to its programs. The purpose of these valuations range from informing natural resource damage assessments after oil and other toxic spills, to informing coastal planners about public preferences related to conservation, restoration, and management to providing marine and coastal managers with information about the value society places on recreational fishing, beach recreation, water quality, and the protection of endangered species. NOAA also provides economic statistics associated with commercial and recreational fisheries and other ocean-dependent industries, coastal recreation, and weather and climate impacts.
Analysis of how federal management actions affect the production and delivery of ecosystem services helps guide those actions to prioritize and maximize services deemed important to specific stakeholder groups and society at large. To conduct this analysis, NOAA and its federal partners need to take research on ecosystems and connect it with the values that society places on ecosystem services. This task entails some challenges. They include the availability and transferability of ecological and social data across spatial and temporal scales as well as specific policy guidance and legal mandates to use the ecosystem services approach to carry out EBM efforts.
In implementing EBM efforts, NOAA faces yet other challenges unique to its mission of science, service, and stewardship. First, it is subject to more than 140 federal laws involving at least six departments of the federal government and dozens of federal agencies. Second, it lacks the high-resolution, spatially explicit data needed for EBM efforts in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—the largest in the world at 11 million square kilometers of ocean. Third, unlike the federal land management agencies, NOAA focuses on managing particular resources (e.g., fisheries and protected resources such as corals) and providing technical services (e.g., weather forecasts and climate outlooks) over vast areas at a broad scale, which feed into its own and its partners’ management strategies. Fourth, NOAA intensively manages some relatively small but very important protected places (e.g.,national marine sanctuaries, national estuarine research reserves). All EBM efforts require collaboration, but the nature of NOAA’s mandates and the fact that other government agencies may have responsibilities in the same areas requires NOAA to work very closely with partners to approach its management responsibilities from an ecosystem services perspective.
NOAA recognizes the potential for ecosystem services (ES) approaches to help it make better management decisions within an EBM framework. In three broad decision contexts, highlighted below, NOAA is moving toward a more quantified, spatially explicit consideration of ecosystem services and a better understanding of how they are affected by different management alternatives. The three decision contexts are
For fisheries management, an ES approach is useful to understand how different management approaches affect the services that flow from productive, sustainable fisheries. For regional and local place-based management, an ES approach is useful to maximize the delivery of a suite of benefits.
NOAA provides scientific advice in the way of fish stock assessments and other studies as part of the fisheries management process undertaken by regional fisheries management councils. Fishing quotas and other regulatory measures are adopted to prevent overfishing and ensure that the optimum yield is obtained from our fishery resources. Similarly, recommendations are made to protect fish habitat in light of ecosystem considerations such as interactions among species and by-catch issues.
NOAA’s fisheries science centers are responsible for conducting fish stock assessment and ecosystem surveys and for producing some of the scientific peer-reviewed publications used in the management process. Often, partnerships with commercial and recreational fishing interests are developed to contribute to the research, which is provided to regional fisheries management councils.
NOAA has historically been concerned with the management and protection of living marine resources. It has direct management authority under the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act for fishery stocks principally found within federal waters. It has additional management interactions with interstate commissions responsible for species managed in state waters. Other key pieces of legislation are the Fish & Wildlife Coordination Act, Endangered Species Act and NEPA.
NOAA couples fishery-independent stock assessments with industry catch and effort data and recreational catch and effort data. It often supplements these sources with data collected by states and university partners (e.g., through Sea Grant). Core capacity to conduct the science exists at each of the fisheries science centers and satellite laboratories, and with partner state and academic organizations. NOAA is expanding its efforts to incorporate understanding of ecosystem services into fisheries management, the recovery and protection of protected species, and habitat conservation and management. These efforts include the use of integrated ecosystem assessments and the use of large-scale ecosystem models such as Ecopath w/Ecosim and the Atlantis model.
NOAA has long realized that target (i.e., commercial and endangered) species are part of ecosystems that provide benefits such as storm protection, climate mitigation, and water quality—benefits that need to be quantified. Valuing ecosystem services enables NOAA to leverage stakeholders and partners’ commitment to invest in habitat conservation to secure a better future for coastal communities and economies.
In recent years, NOAA has focused on larger restoration efforts that affect an entire watershed versus smaller projects scattered along the coast. NOAA received $167 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to restore coastal areas throughout the country. The idea was to scale up successful restoration efforts to include entire watersheds or larger areas identified as environmentally important and beneficial to the economy. The resulting 50 restoration projects are some of the most noteworthy large-scale restoration projects in the United States, and they embody current efforts to address ecosystem restoration in an integrative and dynamic manner, on a large spatial scale, and with complex stakeholder and public roles.
One such project —led by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in partnership with NOAA, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center (LSU AgCenter), and Coastal Environments Inc. (CEI)—created a living shoreline (artificial oyster reef) along highly eroding marsh coastline in southeast Louisiana. Funded by an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant through NOAA, this project is an important step toward stabilizing particularly vulnerable shorelines and enhancing the ecological health and resiliency of the estuarine habitats near Grand Isle and Fifi Island and in St. Bernard Marsh.
Other projects help guide expenditures for ecological restoration activities so as to achieve the most ecosystem services benefits from specific investments. One ongoing fisheries habitat restoration project, based in Cape Fear, North Carolina, is valuing the water quality benefits that the project brings to municipal water users. This information could be used to further refine habitat restoration as well as water resources management objectives and guide the selection of alternative management actions.
As the premier federal source of scientific information on the marine environment, NOAA is relied on to develop and maintain data sets relating to ecosystem/habitat health and supporting ecosystem valuation and decision making. These data sets are published in easily digestible formats to facilitate use by various stakeholders, including academic researchers, community organizations, and public policy officials. As society becomes increasingly cognizant of the inextricable links between societal wellbeing and environmental health, NOAA will deliver information that drives more informed and targeted natural resource management decisions.
Results of the above-noted oyster reef study and others like it help fill knowledge gaps regarding economic values of different habitat types in different regions. But these results at the project level need to be scaled up to inform program planning and decisionmaking. Identifying critical information gaps in ecological and social data in existing inventories is critical to achieve this goal. Just as important are clarifying, communicating, and prioritizing stakeholder needs to improve the flow of benefits and to generate support for additional stewardship work across the country.
NOAA’s place-based conservation and research provide critical information for coastal decisionmakers. NOAA’s mandates, such as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act, allow NOAA to examine the relationship between ecosystem health and function and the services that ecosystems provide at specific locations around the country and under different conditions of human-induced and natural stressors. One of NOAA’s objectives for its placed-based work in national marine sanctuaries (NMS) and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) has been a better understanding of this relationship. Ecosystem services research can increase the need for a better understanding of the connection between the health of ecosystems and the benefits humans derive from them. NOAA relies on ecosystem services approaches in local place-based management of national marine sanctuaries, and national estuarine research reserves.
Management contexts in the sanctuaries and research reserves are different but complementary. The sanctuaries are geographically defined areas of coastal, ocean, and Great Lakes waters that are legally designated for management and protection under the NMSA. In managing sanctuaries, NOAA works with partners and stakeholders to promote responsible, sustainable ocean uses that ensure the health of coastal and marine resources within sanctuary boundaries. Partners include industry representatives, state personnel, non-governmental organizations, and fishery managers. Many activities in sanctuaries rely on healthy ecosystem resources and the ecosystem goods and services that they provide. In the past, NMS condition reports have provided information on pressures on sanctuary resources, current conditions and trends, and management responses to human activities. More recently, the reports have incorporated the benefits that humans receive from healthy sanctuary resources and characterized those benefits in the ecosystem services framework.
The management emphasis for reserves is to practice and promote the stewardship of coasts and estuaries through research, education, and training under the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA). NERRS management is also heavily reliant on interactions with local stakeholders and decisionmakers, including planners, emergency managers, and NGOs. Staff members interact with their partners through research, education, and training. Long-term monitoring of water quality, weather, and habitat changes provides critical data on ecosystem status and change. Each reserve serves as a living laboratory and classroom where research methods and management approaches can be piloted and applied to issues of local, regional, and national importance. For example, a research effort in the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve incorporates the input of stakeholders in illuminating the relative benefits of development and the value of protected riparian buffer lands. The project aims to quantify tradeoffs in ecosystem services in the context of land use decisions.The Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is studying the impacts of land-based nutrients on coastal marshes and the value of the carbon sequestered therein.
Methods for valuing NOAA’s place-based functions are heavily dependent on whether the need is for use or non-use values, market or non-market values, and the stakeholders involved. For example, for an estimate of the recreation benefits of alternative sanctuary regulations related to healthier sanctuary resources NOAA might use the travel cost method. In another case, it might use a survey of the entire local population. NOAA will use whatever tools and methods are appropriate for the questions to be addressed, stakeholders involved, and the nature of the ecosystem services and values evaluated.
The explicit consideration of biological functions that contribute to ecosystem goods and services is a relatively new concept for NOAA’s place-based management. Although this concept has been used in NOAA fisheries applications (e.g., bio-economic modeling), NOAA’s place-based functions are just beginning to apply it with some consistency and regularity. Values for some of the direct connections between ecological health and societal benefits could play a role in place-based management. Decision making based explicitly on information that incorporates ecological health is a paradigm that fits well with both the ONMS and NERRS frameworks, but such decision making will require greater capacity on the part of NOAA and greater understanding on the part of stakeholders and decisionmakers.
Because NOAA has diverse functions, it has no single decision-making framework for identifying needed ecosystem services information. NOAA’s place-based functions could utilize such information to support management decisions, characterize the benefits of NOAA products and services, understand the relative benefits of restoration options, and prioritize those options. Although these different applications may call for slightly different data needs, the data with the broadest applicability to NOAA’s decision making should be identified.
For many years, NOAA has been making progress in transitioning to an ecosystem-based management approach, and more recently has been moving to advance a strategic approach to integrating ecosystem services and their values into decisions. NOAA’s strategic vision of “healthy ecosystems, communities, and economies that are resilient in the face of change” articulates the connection between ecosystems and the communities that rely on them. That connection is highlighted in NOAA’s strategic goals, which couple its science, service, and stewardship activities related to weather, climate, oceans, and coasts with the needs of and benefits to society. Nonetheless, social science remains only partially integrated into NOAA’s decisionmaking, and its adoption across multiple lines of science, service, and stewardship is inconsistent. Integrating the social sciences with natural sciences has become a leadership priority. As NOAA continues to make strides in this area, its capacity to advance ecosystem services work will grow in turn.
Regardless of the challenges, NOAA’s efforts to advance a strategic approach to integrating ecosystem services are adaptive, collaborative, incremental, and, in many cases, innovative. Collaboratively developed management strategies are tailored to unique conditions and issues, and strategies are adapted and combined for an integrated approach. Further, mechanisms are in place to share information and receive feedback and to include stakeholders in decisionmaking based on both environmental and social factors. NOAA is using an innovative ecosystems services approach to advance coastal community resilience from weather and climate hazards and is beginning to incorporate understanding of ecosystem services such as structural protection (coastal green infrastructure) into preparedness and recovery from coastal storms and climate hazards. NOAA is also advancing understanding and use of coastal blue carbon in decisionmaking, connecting coastal restoration activities with climate change adaptation and mitigation.
These efforts are largely driven through strong partnerships, which are evolving to demonstrate the value that coastal and ocean ecosystems provide to the U.S.economy and industry. For example, the National Sea Grant Program partners with thousands of organizations to leverage efforts, providing a source of funding opportunities for research and application of ecosystem services valuation. The program also tracks several metrics relevant to ecosystem services as part of its national performance measure system. Partners such as NOAA’s sister federal agencies, state and local governments, academia, and NGOs are critical to NOAA’s efforts and success.
NOAA has developed two agency examples for this guidebook:
A Heuristic Framework for Evaluating Ecosystem Services in Coastal and Marine Environments: Marine InVEST describes a research project that explores the importance of using an ecosystem services framework to include the effects of watershed-based activities and climate change in management of marine coastal resources. Using Marine InVEST, the project developed a set of linked watershed-marine models with ecosystem service outputs to evaluate management strategies for coastal resources in several U.S. locations. In each case, the researchers compare the strength and influence of watershed activities on key ecosystem services and ask how outcomes of marine resource management strategies are affected by the strategies’ inclusion of watershed processes.
Operationalizing and Leveraging an Ecosystem Service Framework for Habitat Conservation: Blue Coastal Carbon describes NOAA’s efforts, primarily domestically but also internationally, to support the scientific, policy, and economic framework needed to increase use of information on coastal wetland’s carbon sequestration (“blue carbon”) potential in coastal management. It describes NOAA’s formation of an interagency blue carbon team and the team’s collaboration with non-profit partners to evaluate how existing federal laws can support blue carbon accounting and management. The team supported a project that provided scientific information on how nitrogen pollution affects sequestration rates, thereby helping establish the first Verified Carbon Standard for restored wetlands for voluntary carbon markets.