National Geographic Society Newsroom

Mapping Ocean Wealth – Informing a Sustainable Ocean Economy

By Mark Spalding, marine scientist, The Nature Conservancy I’m a somewhat recalcitrant tweeter. I’m not quite sure whether it’s worth the effort, but last month I joined a trending topic, a first for me. I tweeted: #IAmAScientistBecause I want to explain to people how much we all NEED nature. It was honest, but I wondered...

A school of Yellowstripe Scads in the waters of Dampier Strait off the Raja Ampat Islands of Indonesia. Photo © Jeff Yonover

By Mark Spalding, marine scientist, The Nature Conservancy

I’m a somewhat recalcitrant tweeter. I’m not quite sure whether it’s worth the effort, but last month I joined a trending topic, a first for me.

I tweeted: #IAmAScientistBecause I want to explain to people how much we all NEED nature.

It was honest, but I wondered if it was a little trite. What blew me away was that my message received more retweets than I have followers — my first brush with a little social media success.

As a marine scientist, I’m driven by numbers, biology and statistics, but as a concerned citizen I really want my science to come out of the journals and to have an influence — on people, on communities and on nature.

Last year, I got a bit more than 140 characters of attention when I presented new ocean science at the second Economist Ocean Summit. However, my message was the same: we all need nature. And the audience – the private sector, governments, development banks – was crucial to reach.

In plenary, over coffees and in the side meetings the discussion focused heavily on why the coastal and ocean economy depend on nature — for coastal protection, fish production, tourism revenues, water quality, employment, foreign exchange, food supplies and quality of life.

By translating the science of ocean habitats to the production functions that benefit people and coastal economies, we are changing the conversation and finding support for a healthy ocean that the conservation community could not achieve alone.

The theme of my tweet and my Economist Summit talk is informed by a long history of NGO rhetoric. Heady claims that we need nature, that it’s valuable beyond measure. Such assertions, driven by science, have supported our conservation efforts well over the years, as we’ve grown marine protected areas and inspired a more sustainable seafood industry. But the science and the evidence base, has not grown fast enough to keep up with development and resource demand.

Today, the ocean is changing fast on multiple fronts. Sustainable energy is transforming nearshore waters. Extractive industries are pulling up oil, gas, and aggregates. Big fisheries in some places are sequentially mining fish stocks and tearing up the deep seabed before we even have the faintest idea what was down there. Aquaculture – for food, even for biofuels – is surging. And on the horizon are new concepts including polar drilling, deep ocean nodule mining, and harnessing of tidal power with man-made lagoons and barrages.

And as economic growth meets climate change, the coastal zone itself is transforming — mangroves are cut, marshes are drained and seawalls are built. This is reality. And, this development, be it for risk reduction or economic growth, will happen.

Here lies both the challenge and the opportunity – ensuring this blue growth is sustainable. That means bringing nature into the discussion, not as a charitable add-on, or a luxury for the remotest parts of the planet, but as a key contributor to economic and social growth and well-being.

Consider these facts:

  • Communities can save $85,000 per hectare in coastal defense every year by building oyster reefs that also, by the way, churn out valuable fish and clean their water.
  • Caribbean nations receive tens of millions of dollars in income annually from sport-fishing by protecting the mangroves that shelter and feed its healthy stocks of bonefish, permit, and tarpon.
  • Coral reefs are the first line of defense for 63 million people globally and reduce on average 97 percent of a wave’s energy before they reach the shore or infrastructure.
  • A single shark in the waters of Palau has a lifetime tourism value of $1.9 million, while only carrying a fished value of $108.

Such numbers, and there are many more, are exciting. They come from efforts now surging in many areas which we are calling Mapping Ocean Wealth. They are carrying us beyond the rhetoric, providing the data needed to fuel a sustainable ocean economy.


And the individual numbers become extraordinary when we start to stack them up. Picture the coastlines you know — where saltmarshes give way to shallow waters that might be rich in seagrasss or oyster reefs; or where mangroves and coral reefs lie in tight array. In all cases it’s the combined values of multiple ecosystems that make the case almost uniformly watertight.

These ecosystems clean our water, defend us from erosion and flooding, sequester and store carbon faster than any other ecosystems, generate fish, pull in tourists and support recreation. Where they have been lost, fishing is depressed, millions are spent on sea defenses, water becomes polluted and recreation is reduced or non-existent.

Investors want to know the shape of things to come.

Suppose regulations were enacted to support restoration, allowing some ownership of the benefits. A square kilometer of coral reef, restored to good health, can generate over five tons of fish, sustainably, in perpetuity; a hectare of seagrass bed can produce $24,000 more in commercially valuable fish per year than bare seafloor.

Suppose the ocean’s natural benefits are quantified and incorporated into business practices across the board, much like the reinsurance industry is beginning to do, by valuing the protective benefits of nature in its risk modelling.

New investments and attention might flow into the ocean economy that could finally move conservation from a niche activity to a mainstream priority — recognizing that we all, indeed, need nature.

The Economist’s World Ocean Summit (June 3-5 in Portugal) will build on these ideas with government, business, philanthropic and other leaders looking to chart a new course for the blue economy.

Click to enlarge the Mapping Ocean Wealth infographics above to see specific, quantitative examples about how and where ocean’s benefits are produced and delivered. Learn more at

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

The Nature Conservancy
Protect. Transform. Inspire. The Nature Conservancy is uniquely positioned to be a leader in taking on the most complex challenges facing the planet. Our place-based projects in over 40 countries serve as living laboratories where new ideas to protect nature are tested, perfected and adapted for other places. We engage businesses, governments and communities in delivering these on-the-ground results – demonstrating how conservation innovations can transform how our food, water and energy are produced. And by empowering more leaders and communities all over the world with solutions that work, we will inspire action at the scale of the challenge.