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Ecosystem Services Viewer Brings Value of Gulf of Mexico Habitats to your Home and Office

The value of salt marshes, mangroves, and oyster reefs in the Gulf

By Melissa Schneider, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium

What’s the Gulf of Mexico coast worth? Scientists with the Harte Research Institute (HRI) at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi have developed a new online tool that shares the value we place on three Gulf habitats. The tool displays this new information in an intuitive and interactive manner. 

HRI Associate Research Scientist Dr. Cristina Carollo and HRI Endowed Chair Dr. David Yoskowitz developed the project.

They used online surveys to determine how much Gulf residents value salt marsh, mangroves, and oyster reefs. The results of the study, available at gecoview.org, went online in May 2015 and will be continually updated and maintained. 

The Ecosystem Services Viewer can aid decision makers by providing dollar values for coastal habitats when comparing alternative management scenarios. 

“For example, if a city is considering developing a marina, which would disturb some salt marsh, knowing the value that the public places on that marsh is important information that was missing before,” Yoskowitz said.

Gulf habitats provide many benefits to people known as ecosystem services. While some values are easier to determine (the dockside price for red snapper, for instance), others are more difficult to calculate.

“How do you quantify aesthetics or water quality?” Carollo said. “Before this project, we didn’t have a dollar value on any of these benefits in the Gulf of Mexico. There is no market where these can be traded.”

The project’s goal was to determine how much people in each state would be willing to pay — if at all — for the conservation of Gulf habitats. This willingness-to-pay concept is a standard approach to measuring economic value for non-market benefits, and in this study, passive-use services. 

“Passive use values are not associated with any direct use of the ecosystem so they cannot be assessed by means of information on actual behavior,” Carollo said. “Estimating these values requires using a technique that asks people to state their preferences.”

Carollo, Yoskowitz and their collaborators at Resources for the Future and Dauphin Island Sea Lab created, tested and administered the survey in Florida, Alabama-Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. The survey asked 1,200 participants across the Gulf to choose amongst conservation programs. Participants could vote to pay nothing and take no action, resulting in an expected loss of a specified number of square miles of habitat and the associated services. Or, they could choose from two conservation plans offering environmental improvements at different costs. The options were presented much like a ballot.

The hypothetical cost of any conservation plan would be added as a surcharge to the participants’ utility bills, according to the survey instructions. The surcharge would last 10 years, and the program would be re-evaluated after five years. 

Using the survey results, the team was able to develop an annual dollar value for the non-market services (aesthetics and existence, habitat, and spiritual and historic use) that salt marshes, mangroves and oyster reefs provide. 

The team also used existing data to calculate the values of other services, including storm protection, recreation and carbon sequestration. These values, and the willingness-to-pay values determined by the survey, are available on GecoView (www.gecoview.org).

The project was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-Gulf of Mexico ProgramFlorida Sea Grant College ProgramLouisiana Sea Grant College ProgramMississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and Texas Sea Grant

The long-term impact of this project will be its influence on how our coastal natural assets are effectively managed.

For More Information: 

Harte Research Institute Video about Ocean Ecosystem Services

Ecosystem Services in the Gulf of Mexico

Ecosystem Services Visualized

More Ecosystem Services Resources

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