#02 2021

Ocean accounting: Classifying marine and coastal ecosystems

By Nicole du Plessis, SAEON Egagasini Node

In the past decade there has been an increased focus on nature’s contributions to people, particularly in the ocean space, due to the recognition of the economic benefits that these contributions do and can provide with increased investment in ocean industry development. Understanding these benefits and where they come from (i.e. ecosystems) is one of the first steps in the process of valuing nature, whether through monetary or non-monetary means.  

Valuing nature  

The recognition of the value of nature has gained much prominence in recent years within the business and political spheres, as attested to by several recent events and publications, including:

These initiatives highlight the recognition within governments and business that without the contributions from a healthy environment, we would not have many of the benefits today which we take for granted. Most recently, in March 2021, the United Nations Statistical Commission adopted the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting – Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA) as an international statistical standard (formerly this was known as Experimental Ecosystem Accounting).

While these initiatives may appear to have a strong economic focus, they highlight the need to protect nature for the continued well-being of humankind:

  • “Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: Nature.” – The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. Headline Messages.
  • “The adoption of this economic and environmental framework is a historic step towards transforming the way how we view and value nature. No longer will we allow mindless environmental destruction to be considered as economic progress.” – United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on the adoption of the SEEA EA framework.

The Ocean Accounts Framework Work Programme 2 is developing ecosystem extent and condition accounts for Algoa Bay (pictured) as a case study (Photo: Shutterstock)

Classifying coastal and marine ecosystems

A common starting point for ecosystem service[1] studies is the identification and classification of ecosystems. In keeping with the need for globally integrated methods or best practices, a standardised system for classifying ecosystems is imperative.

The IUCN has developed a Global Ecosystem Typology in response to the various ocean knowledge needs developments, with the ecosystems classified into realms, biomes and functional groups[2] (see table). The typology was developed in a manner to be incorporated into ecosystem accounts and the SEEA EA.

The SEEA EA however recognises that local ecological conditions vary between nations, and classifications may be specific to local management needs. The SEEA EA recommends that existing national classification schemes continue to be used, with cross-referencing to the IUCN Global Ecosystem Typology for comparison between nations.

As an example, the latest South African National Biodiversity Assessment[3], for 2018, provides a national ecosystem classification system but was developed in such a way as to still be integrated into the IUCN framework. For the marine and coastal ecosystems this information is included:

  • Level 1: Ecoregions – Classified due to biogeography.
  • Level 2: Bathyregions – Bathyregions represent the ecoregions divided by depth.
  • Level 3: Functional ecosystem types – Classification refined to reflect substrate and main features using geophysical data or geomorphological units.
  • Level 4: Ecosystem types – further subclassification considers local-scale drivers influencing biodiversity pattern.

Using this framework, the authors identified 150 marine and coastal ecosystem types for South Africa.

Ocean Accounts Framework: Developing ecosystem extent and condition accounts within Algoa Bay  

The application of the classification models is being considered as part of the National Research Foundation (NRF) Ocean Accounts Framework (OAF) Work Programme 2, which is focused on developing ecosystem extent and condition accounts for Algoa Bay as a case study.

The project team recently hosted its second stakeholder engagement meeting on 25 March, focused on discussion around data development, needs, gaps and insights. The meeting was facilitated by Mrs Erika Brown, and additional speakers included Prof Ken Findlay and Dr Taina Louireo (Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Centre of Sustainable Oceans Economy and NRF OAF Work Programme 3) and Mr Giles Fearon (SAEON Egagasini Node).

The Ocean Accounts Framework is meant to present a more holistic picture of a country’s wealth than gross domestic product, not only reporting on the economic production but also providing a means to incorporate natural capital, environmental sustainability and social equity and inclusion into an internationally recognised standardised accounting framework to assess the wealth and human well-being of a country.

Example of the IUCN Global Ecosystem Typology for Marine and Coastal Ecosystems adapted from Keith et al. (2020)

[1] The final draft of the SEEA-EA adopted by the United Nations Statistical Commission in March 2021 provides the definition for Ecosystem Services as – ‘the contributions of ecosystems to the benefits that are used in economic and other human activity’.

[2] Keith, D. A., Ferrer, J. R., Nicholson, E., Bishop, M. J., Polidoro, B. A., Ramirez-, E., Tozer, M. G., Nel, J. L., Mac Nally, R., Gregr, E. J., Watermeyer, K. E., Essl, F., Faber-langendoen, D., Franklin, J., Lehmann, C. E. R., Etter, A., Dirk, J., Stark, J. S., Rowland, J. A., … Kingsford, R. T. (2020). The IUCN Global Ecosystem Typology v1.01: Descriptive profiles for Biomes and Ecosystem Functional Groups (Issue February)

[3] Sink, K. J., Van der Bank, M. G., Majiedt, P. A., Harris, L. R., Atkinson, L. J., Kirkman, S. P., & Karenyi, N. (eds). (2019). South African National Biodiversity Assessment 2018. Technical Report Volume 4: Marine Realm (Vol. 4). https://doi.org/http://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12143/6372 #A.