Restoring coastal ecosystems can provide significant economic benefits and even create “pathways out of poverty” for low-income Americans, according to a new report.
The report, published Wednesday by the Center for American Progress and Oxfam America, looked at three coastal restoration projects on different coasts in the U.S. and found that, for every $1 invested in coastal restoration projects, $15 in net economic benefits was created. These benefits include improved fish stocks, due to the fact that 75 percent of the U.S.’s most important commercial fish species rely on coastal environments at some point in their life cycle, with many young fish and crustaceans using habitats such as oyster reefs as nurseries.
Coastal restoration also provides increased protection from storm surges, improved coastal recreation opportunities, health benefits from increased levels of filter feeders such as oysters, and last of all, jobs: for every $1 million invested in coastal restoration, the report notes, 17 jobs were created on average. That’s almost double the 8.9 created per $1 million invested in offshore oil and gas development.
“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,” Mark Schaefer, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Conservation and Management at NOAA, said at the report’s release event Wednesday. “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.”
In one of the restoration projects the report studied, scientists and other officials worked to improve two coastal habitats of Virginia’s Seaside Bays: oyster reefs and submerged aquatic vegetation, an ecosystem composed of sea grasses that grow in shallow water. Both of these ecosystems have faced sharp declines in Virginia and worldwide, but restoration efforts led to the creation of new oyster reefs at 14 sites along the coast — 22.1 acres of functional oyster reefs in all — and 133 acres that were seeded with eelgrass, an area that scientists think will expand to 1,703 acres of seagrass bed in the next 24 years. The oyster reefs and eelgrass beds provide habitat for young fish and bay scallops, which means fish stocks in the area could go up. That would be good news for Northhampton County, Virginia, which has a poverty rate of 22.4 percent and benefits from commercial and recreational fishing and ecotourism business.
Restoring these ecosystems have safety benefits, as well. Coastal wetlands, along with serving as essential habitats for many species, help buffer coastal communities from strong storm surges by soaking up seawater. According to the report, up to 60 percent of the damage done to Gulf Coast communities from hurricanes happens because there aren’t healthy barrier ecosystems in place. 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.
But despite these economic and safety benefits, Schaefer said the U.S. shouldn’t just focus on restoring coastal ecosystems. Instead, more must be done to prevent the damages that lead to the need for coastal reclamation in the first place. Loss of sediment from the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers is contributing to Louisiana losing a football field-sized chunk of land every hour, and that loss of sediment is occurring because of the construction of levees and dams along the rivers. Without the sediment, coastal marshes are more susceptible to being submerged due to sea level rise.
“We need to do a better job of helping people understand what is happening to our coastlines in aggregate, over time.” he said. “We gain big when we conserve and restore coastal habitats — this is a no-brainer.”