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Prof. Kai Chan says that researchers have not been effective at showing impacts of extracting natural resources - photo by Martin Dee
Prof. Kai Chan says that researchers have not been effective at showing impacts of extracting natural resources - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 1 | Jan. 3, 2008

NBT: A New Way to Assess Local Ecosystems Sustainability

By Kai M. A. Chan
Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair, Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability, College for Interdisciplinary Studies

Ecosystems are in flux around the world. Important species are disappearing due to mismanagement and climate change, while invasive new species are appearing. These changes are striking fear into many communities that depend on ecosystems for their livelihood.

Imagine you are a local shellfish harvester on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Sea otters, which have been known to wreak havoc on some shellfish industries, are beginning to re-colonize local waters. It doesn’t matter much to the community that this marks the return of a once-loved native species: they are still up in arms. The local First Nation is considering hunting the otters. But is a cull the best thing for the community or the ecosystem?

To answer this complex but important question, researchers at UBC and elsewhere are employing a new concept, ecosystem services, to help community leaders make the best decisions for the long-term health of local ecosystems. The concept of ecosystem services can be traced to Plato, but the term was introduced by Paul and Anne Ehrlich in 1981 and has enjoyed exploding popularity since.

Ecosystem services are the direct and indirect benefits that people obtain from their interactions with ecosystems. There are provisioning services like the production of natural resources including food, fibre, and fuel; regulating services like the mitigation of floods and climate change; cultural services like the provision of recreational opportunities and scientific, artistic, and religious inspiration; and supporting services like the pollination of crops and the biological control of pests. A sustainable ecosystem would continue to produce these benefits for future generations.

You might think that researchers understand how ecosystems produce all these services, and that the current unsustainability of ecosystems is a result of poor policy and management. It’s true that in extracting natural resources, industry often turns a blind eye on ecosystem impacts. But researchers have not been able to show the consequences of these impacts for ecosystem services, so the impacts continue apace.

The B.C. Coastal Ecosystem Services team -- a group of UBC faculty and students plus leaders from conservation organizations -- is employing the ecosystem services concept in Clayoquot Sound. Despite the fear, otters may help various industries by regenerating productive kelp forests, so boosting populations of rockfish, herrings, and possibly also grey whales, sea birds, and more: these species are associated with commercial and recreational industries that benefit coastal communities. The kelp forest expansion may even help some shellfish, but the jury is still out. So should First Nations hunt otters? We don’t know, but by working with local decision makers we’re hoping to help them make sustainable choices.

Our project is affiliated with the Natural Capital Project (www.naturalcapitalproject.org), which is working in China, Tanzania, California, and elsewhere. The study of ecosystem services brings together experts from ecology, economics, conservation, hydrology, anthropology, earth and ocean sciences, ethics, and more to provide as complete of a picture of the potential pros and cons of management decisions facing ecosystems. Even enlightened decisions have downsides, but ecosystem-service analyses provide ways of reducing conflict by revealing the winners and losers and suggesting possibilities for compensation. This can reduce conflict between stakeholders and promote justice.

Sustainable ecosystems and ecosystem services are not easily achieved. Just like with the many shellfish and finfish industries and various recreational industries of Vancouver Island, numerous ecosystem services are produced simultaneously by interacting components of complex systems. Salmon, for example, provide food and fundamental cultural services to people of BC and elsewhere, and they also provide nutrients and energy for forests, bears, wolves, and eagles. Salmon cannot be managed alone, because over the course of their lives they navigate thousands of kilometers of freshwater, estuaries, and ocean, dodging impacts of logging, dams, pollution, and nets, including those for other fish.

Ecosystem services are the flip side of the ecological footprint. In fact, ecosystem services are the ‘print’ part of the footprint; the so-called ‘ecological footprint’ is the shoe size. The insightful ecological footprint concept (of Wackernagel and Rees at UBC) is the amount of biologically productive land and sea needed to produce the resources used by a person or population. It tells us that we’re already outstripping the planet’s capacity to sustainably provide for us. But that ecological foot doesn’t fall in any one place: the negative impacts of a person’s consumption fall in many places across the globe. Even if the global population had a sustainable foot, it might have many unsustainable ecosystems.

Interdisciplinary “ecosystem services” research paves a path to sustainable ecosystems and human well-being.

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Last reviewed 21-Dec-2007

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