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Coastal Ecosystem Restoration Yields Remarkable Returns


In an increasingly urbanized, technologically complex and consumption-driven society, it's easy to lose sight of the advantages and benefits to be realized, as well as our fundamental reliance on, ecosystems and the services they provide.

Yet even as our preoccupation with jobs, economic growth and development has continued to intensify, we've been gaining greater understanding, and appreciation, of the value of ecosystems and ecosystem services -- not just in terms of environmental health and safety, but for their economic and broader social value as well.

On April 9, the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Oxfam America released, “The Economic Case for Restoring Coastal Ecosystems,” a report that highlights the remarkable economic value and benefits realized by coastal ecosystem restoration projects carried out right here in the U.S.

Coastal ecosystem restoration: More job creation than offshore oil and gas development

The CAP-Oxfam America study of coastal ecosystem restoration projects revealed some surprising economic results. As NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Conservation and Management Mark Schaefer elaborated in a news release.
“We learned in a nutshell that there’s a win-win, if not a win-win-win, opportunity that presents itself when you invest in conservation. The economic benefits are remarkable … there’s a direct connection between what we’re doing to enhance the environment and what we’re doing to enhance economic opportunity.”

The CAP-Oxfam America study provides a basis for rethinking conventional ideas regarding return on investment, economic growth and development, including how to revitalize the U.S. economy and society, alleviate poverty, diminish widening gaps in income and wealth, and enhance innovation and economic opportunity.

Analyzing data on three coastal ecosystem restoration projects on different U.S. coasts, the project team found that for every $1 million invested in carrying out the projects:

    • $15 in net economic benefits was created for every dollar spent.

    • 17 jobs were created on average – almost double the 8.9 created per $1 million invested in offshore oil and gas development.

    • Projects provide increased protection from storm surges, improved coastal recreation opportunities, and health benefits from increased levels of filter feeders, such as oysters.

The net 15:1 economic return and other benefits of these coastal ecosystem restoration projects flowed directly through from improved fish stocks, “due to the fact that 75 percent of the U.S.' most important commercial fish species relay on coastal environments at some point in their life cycle, with many young fish and crustaceans using habitats such as oyster reefs as nurseries,” CAP and Oxfam America point out.

Coastal ecosystems: Valuable natural resources for this and future generations

In addition to the higher economic value realized by improving marine breeding grounds and commercial fish and shellfish stocks, the project team also found that coastal ecosystem restoration projects improve human health and safety by reducing the vulnerability of communities, basic public services and infrastructure to extreme weather events, such as storm surges and rising sea levels. As elaborated in the press release:
“Coastal wetlands, along with serving as essential habitats for many species, help buffer coastal communities from strong storm surges by soaking up seawater...[U]p to 60 percent of the damage done to Gulf Coast communities from hurricanes happens because there aren’t healthy barrier ecosystems in place.”

Then there is the value of these coastal ecosystems in terms of carbon capture and storage, which is likely to increase in value as human carbon and greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. As CAP and Oxfam America continue:
“Many of these ecosystems also serve as major carbon sinks, thus helping mitigate climate change as well as helping protect communities from its effects — coastal sea grass, for instance, stores more carbon dioxide per square kilometer than forests do.”

Rethinking coastal resource management: More in the way of prevention

NOAA's Schaefer emphasized the need to rethink coastal development and management by focusing and investing not just in coastal ecosystem restoration, but also on projects that will prevent the degradation and loss of environments in the first place. The report authors point to the loss of sediment from the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers as an example.

Louisiana loses an area of land the size of a football field every hour as a result of the construction of levees and dams along these rivers, they note. As a result, sediment that builds up and strengthens coastal marshes, and provides nutrients to the animal and plant life in these habitats, is being withheld. That alters the dynamics of these ecosystems and leaves them more susceptible to storm surges and sea level rise.

“We need to do a better job of helping people understand what is happening to our coastlines in aggregate, over time. We gain big when we conserve and restore coastal habitats — this is a no-brainer,” Schaefer stated.

Images courtesy of the CAP-Oxfam America study

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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