Is Marine Protection a Good Investment?
Much has been made of the economic returns on marine protection. The truth is that the economic return on marine protection varies. Some marine protected areas (MPAs) generate substantial economic value and others … well not so much. One thing is for certain – we could do a much better job of using MPAs to improve economic wellbeing.
Few MPAs are designed with economic ends in mind. MPAs often are established to protect habitat, biodiversity, fish, or cultural resources. In these cases, the economic benefits of marine protection are seen as “co-benefits” and many an environmental economist has been employed to estimate the value of these MPAs, after the fact.
Unfortunately, too often we value the marine resource and not the marine protection provided. The question to ask is “what’s the difference in the value of the resource with and without marine protection?” In certain cases the difference in value is shockingly small, especially after the costs of protection are taken into account. Some MPAs provide good protection to places with relatively low economic value – islands far from shore, the deep sea. Some MPAs provide insufficient protection to habitats of high value – the value of the resource declines even with marine protection. Even MPAs that provide positive net economic returns often do so without careful attention to how better design could improve economic value. More MPAs could be designed specifically to improve spillover. MPAs could be located specifically to protect habitats that shield homes from storms or create recreational opportunities. It’s time to make economics a more serious part of siting and designing MPAs, not just an after-the-fact pat on the back.