World Ocean Assessment, Part 3

In past blog entries we have been discussing the 2016 publication of UN World Ocean Assessment, a massive report on the state of the ocean as we know it in the myriad ways that it affects our lives. We can measure these things using many methods: by GPS locations and underwater mapping, by observations through ever-improving surface and underwater technologies, by the aggregation of data into studies and academic papers, and by understanding the extent of impacts resulting from human intervention and exploitation. These approaches are comprehensive, and yet we still remain astonishingly ignorant of the actuality and extent of the ocean, physically and systemically. A main purpose of the World Ocean Assessment is to accumulate what we do know in one place for all to share as a baseline and scale against which to measure the future.

Almost everything we do on earth is also measured economically. And such valuation of the ocean and its related activities are far beyond similar calculations and financial reactions on land where many aspects of the economics are left out of the process, typically under-estimating the true profit or true loss in any particular set of circumstances. A new approach, called “ecosystem services” is an attempt to include as many of these absent values into a full audit and balance sheet for human interaction with Nature. When applied to ocean activities, it is particularly revealing because so many elements have historically been left out of the equation. The results of this fresh approach, therefore, can be particularly disconcerting by surprise and contradiction of past conclusions.

Typically, any particular activity -take coastal or offshore fishing for example–has been calculated in the conventional measures of gross catch, sale value, cash flows, and net revenue, some ancillary support services, and direct employment. But many tangibles and intangibles, nonetheless valuable, are left out, leaving an incomplete conclusion based on a narrow definition of a delimited category of commerce. Coastal development might be another example: the construction of a dock or marina or processing plant or waterfront resort–all of which can be measured in a similar way and analyzed accordingly.

But these activities, the Report argues, must be seen as the impetus for concentric impacts beyond–the full expansion of the seafood market and services, global transport, processing and selling, in a worldwide pattern of consumption that amounts to 40% of the protein consumed by the global population annually. The numbers of people benefiting from this very much larger extent of distribution, processing, and consumption, and the financial exchange and value added therein, becomes a very different number indeed. The same holds true for that coastal development example – the costs and benefits of beach protection, recreational uses, associated employment, and personal returns from a resort vacation by the sea.

And then there are even more elements to be added: the loss of the services represented by mangroves and coral reefs that were destroyed and no longer provide protection from extreme weather or habitat for species renewal; of the marine debris and chemical clean-up required to sustain the new use; or of the commitment of public money to insure or repair damages resulting from the new vulnerability of the re-purposed coastal zone.

So a new and more accurate valuation does not include just market price, sales volume, and directly related employment, but also the cost of replacement of services lost to the new utility, to damage enabled or lost by the change, the added cost of production, packaging and distribution of a marketed good and its derived employment, and underlying social costs in support of the entire, integrated system. If these expanded values are included in the global calculation, our true understanding of what is the profit, what is the loss, may prove very different from past conclusions, raising questions about the original premises, suggesting modifications, and arguing perhaps for entirely different ways to calculate the true benefit of any action before it is taken.

This is a radical over-simplification of the suggested approach that concludes the 1,752-page World Ocean Assessment. From my reading it makes great sense to include these factors when, indeed, they are documented by what we know and without them our present valuations seem indifferent to the knowledge, short-term deficient, long-term unsustainable, illogical, and ultimately destructive. This UN Assessment can be put on the shelf and ignored, or it can show us alternatives and responsibilities that will lead us to decisions and actions for generations to come. That’s where the true profit lies.

“World Ocean Assessment” is a four-part blog series.

Peter Neill is author of the recently released “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society” now available through,, and through your favorite local bookseller.

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