Assessing ecosystem services should be essential to all maritime spatial planning

Venturing into the relatively new field of maritime spatial planning, the BONUS BASMATI project has developed new ways to integrate maritime and coastal ecosystem services into planning processes in the Baltic Sea Region. Accurate data on ecosystem services allows for better modelling of the ecological and socio-economic impacts of various planning scenarios, for instance when planning for new aquaculture farms or offshore wind sites.

European countries develop maritime spatial plans

When the EU directive for Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP) was adopted in 2014, it was initially met with some scepticism from the member states, especially those whose economy depends on ocean resources and maritime and coastal activities. The directive addresses the need for more cross-border cooperation to ensure coherent and sustainable management of maritime space, and the concern was that the directive could hamper economically important marine activities.

Now, maritime spatial planning processes are taking place all over Europe. The BONUS BASMATI project has focused specifically on the integration of ecosystem services in maritime spatial planning, taking its outset in local and cross-boundary planning processes in the Baltic Sea Region.

“If we take good care of the ecosystems in the Baltic Sea Region, they will continue to be able provide valuable ecosystem services to us humans,” says project coordinator Henning Sten Hansen, Professor at the Institute of Planning at Aalborg University in Copenhagen. He emphasizes that good maritime spatial planning requires close cooperation between neighbouring countries, as neither ocean currents nor fish – or marine pollution, for that matter – know any borders.

“We’ve developed a range of methods and tools to involve stakeholders in the process, including the Baltic Explorer, a digital solution that provides access to harmonized data on the ecosystems and the services they provide,” says Hansen. “Besides that, we’ve created mathematical modelling tools to assess the impact of different maritime activities on the ecosystem services, also addressing the potential conflicts and synergies between these activities.”

Structured impact assessment

According to Pia Frederiksen, Senior Researcher at the Department of Environmental Science at Aarhus University, the methods and frameworks developed by BONUS BASMATI can play an instrumental role in the ecosystem services assessment.

“From a planning perspective, it’s incredibly valuable to be able to analyse how new uses of marine space will impact already existing activities, as well as how these new activities might change the flow of ecosystem services into human benefits and wellbeing,” says Frederiksen. “Moreover, the tools can assist to conceptualise and structure the dialogue between informed stakeholders and planning authorities.”

BONUS BASMATI has coupled the ecosystem services approach with a well-known environmental framework, the DPSIR model, which describes the human impact on the environment and vice versa. The model’s components are: Driving Forces, Pressures, States, Impacts and Responses.

In the context of ecosystem services assessment, this model is adjusted to assess the flow from maritime sea uses and their influence on a) ecosystems, and following on b) ecosystem services, and c) benefits and values. In this way, both the negative as well as the positive influence of the flow of services from natural ecosystems to human well-being is acknowledged.”

“The new framework enables planners to assess the scenarios and plan proposals and continually adjust them to feedback from stakeholders and new data about the ecosystem services and their benefits.”

Spatial distribution of ecosystem services

One of the deliverables of BONUS BASMATI is an assessment tool that visualises the ecosystems and ecosystem services, providing a clear overview for all involved. In addition, the researchers have developed methods to locate and spatially distribute ecosystem services.

“This is the first time we’re able to map where the ecosystem services are located,” says Solvita Strāķe, Senior Scientist at the Latvian Institute of Aquatic Ecology. “For example, plant energy comes mainly from the shallow coastal zone, while nutrient regulation primarily takes place in the deeper parts of the Baltic Sea. Adding this spatial dimension allows us to assess more precisely the impacts of new activities on the marine habitats.”

Frederiksen adds that this also applies to the distribution of benefits from the ecosystems.

“Up until now, the social dimension of sustainability has not been particularly prominent in maritime spatial planning. Our approach, however, grasps the social equity component quite well, because when you’ve analysed all the benefits provided by the ecosystems, you can also assess the distribution of those benefits to different groups and geographies.”

Ecosystem services approach applied in Latvian planning

The BONUS BASMATI research is built up around three case studies developing integrated and innovative solutions for MSP; one case study that addresses support for the Maritime Protected Area designation process in Latvian marine waters, a transboundary case study in relation with identification of suitable aquaculture sites in Denmark and Germany, and a Pan-Baltic case study that works with tourism and shipping issues in the entire Baltic Sea. Latvia adopted its maritime spatial plan in spring 2019, as one of the first Baltic Sea Region countries.

“Our objective has been to identify valuable habitats where new Marine Protected Areas could be established,” says Strāķe. The Latvian case is focused primarily on benthic habitats, a term referring to the ecological zone at the bottom of the sea. The analysis of these habitats reveals that they produce benefits in all three main categories of ecosystem services: provisional, cultural, and regulation and maintenance ecosystem services.

“The benthic habitats provide us with wild fish, wild plants and plant energy, which are examples of provisioning ecosystem services, while the regulation and maintenance services include accumulation and transformation of hazardous substances, carbon sequestration and nutrient regulation. Furthermore, these habitats provide various types of cultural ecosystem services, such as water environments for recreation, science and education, and cultural and historical heritage.”

Maritime Spatial Planning is a balancing exercise

Latvia’s maritime spatial plans identify large areas as suitable sites for wind power development. While developing offshore wind in these areas will certainly modify the benthic biotopes and the ecosystem services that they provide, the impact is not necessarily entirely negative. Strāķe explains that Benthic biotopes are divided into soft and hard bottom biotopes.

“As an example, when you build windmills, you introduce more hard substrate into the marine environment. This creates favourable conditions for mussels, which play an important role in filtering water and increasing water transparency, which is one of our key objectives in the Baltic Sea. However, the hard substrate might also lead to an increase in other species, such as jellyfish, which are known for eating a lot of plankton. This leaves less food available for fish, which, again, may cause a decline in fisheries. This illustrates the importance of carefully assessing the many different ways in which our planning proposals impact ecosystem services.”

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