Installing Meters at the Beach

The best part about going to the beach is that it’s usually free. But, should it be?

By: Danna Staaf | March 11, 2010 |Miller-McCune.com

Economic models can illuminate the monetary value of beaches and mangroves, but if local people aren’t engaged in conservation, market forces — and coastal ecosystems — may be dead in the water.

Pillows of warm sand, sparkling blue-green waves and the sun beaming over all — who doesn’t love a trip to the beach? Whether it’s California, Jamaica or Kenya, vacationers flock to these iconic interfaces between land and sea. Something about sun, sand and surf holds the human imagination captive.

Perhaps the best part: Beaches are usually free.

But should they be?

In addition to providing the obvious recreational opportunities to sunbathe, swim and fly kites, beaches buffer the coastline from erosion and provide habitat for marine creatures. These benefits are referred to as ecosystem services, and they have long been recognized in inland environments, not just theoretically but economically. Through payment for ecosystem services, also known as PES, forested land can bring its owners money for everything from timber to aesthetic value to the trees’ removal of atmospheric carbon.

Is it time to extend the same concept to coastal land, like beaches, and even to the open ocean, where microscopic algae soak up carbon and produce oxygen in impressive quantities?

This question was the focus of the most recent meeting of the Katoomba Group, an international network of people and organizations working on PES. Brainchild of the conservation nonprofit Forest Trends and named for the location of its first meeting in 1999 in New South Wales, Australia, the Katoomba Group promotes PES through conferences, like February’s meeting in Palo Alto, Calif., and through articles on its Web site, Ecosystem Marketplace.

Other Katoomba meetings have produced action plans and test projects, but for Katoomba’s first foray into the marine arena, the February meeting was mostly an educational and networking opportunity for participants. The smorgasbord of panels, meant to showcase all possible applications of PES at sea, covered topics from fishery management to alternative energy to coastal development. Panelists came from around the world and included scientists, government officials, activists and private investors.

Despite criticism on both ethical and practical grounds, payment for ecosystem services is finding support among academic, public and private sectors. On land or sea, PES always struggles with two big questions: Who pays? And who gets paid?

People benefiting from ecosystem services can’t give money directly to the ecosystem; a beach doesn’t know what to do with a handful of greenbacks. So Erin Hughes, senior program officer at the conservation organization Winrock International, answers this way: “Whoever has the control and is damaging the resource — you pay them to stop.”

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