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Putting a Price Tag on Nature   

July 14, 2014


"Species have value in themselves, a value neither conferred nor revocable, but springing from a species' long evolutionary heritage and potential or even from the mere fact of its existence."


This excerpt from "What Is Conservation Biology?," an influential 1985 essay by the ecologist Michael Soule in BioScience, laid the groundwork for the now widely accepted field of conservation biology. The idea that a species has an inherent value in and of itself was, at the time, a novel and contentious topic. Today, nearly 30 years later, conservation biology is not only accepted as a scientific field, but has spawned a whole suite of government and state-run organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and academic institutions whose sole mission is to protect biodiversity and ecological hotspots, often by purchasing and protecting large swaths of land.


Recently, a new branch of this field has emerged that is challenging the long-held belief that the best way to conserve something is to put a fence around it. Referred to as "new conservation science" or "ecopragmatism," this set of principles is generally guided by the idea that the best way to conserve something is to put a price tag on it, based on the benefits it provides to humans. Essentially, new conservation is the 21st century market-based solution to conservation: the most effective way to protect nature is by making it good for business. Proponents of this new form of conservation, including some noteworthy environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, argue that this form of conservation is the only way to effect any large-scale change to protect natural resources without harming the human populations that rely upon those resources.


Such scenarios are not entirely new. Ecotourism, which places value on protected ecosystems, has proven to be more lucrative in many locations than the exploitation and sale of those natural resources. Similarly, New York City has been buying land and paying landowners to stop polluting in the Catskill Mountains for nearly two decades because the cost is cheaper than building the water purification plants that otherwise would be needed. A prominent article published in the journal Nature in 1997 expounded upon this argument, claiming, "Biosphere I (the Earth) is a very efficient, least-cost provider of human life-support systems" (Costanza et al. 1997). The authors of the article, titled "The value of the World's ecosystem services and natural capital," estimated the annual value of nature at $33 trillion (worth $48.7 trillion today). Comparatively, the global gross national product (human-created value) at the time was only around $18 trillion annually. A recent update to the article takes into account the multitude of studies on the function of ecosystems that have taken place since 1997, as well as the loss and destruction of ecosystems that has occurred, and estimates the value of nature is actually closer to $143 trillion in today's dollars (Costanza et al. 2014).


Whether or not you agree that nature should be assigned a dollar value, the bottom line is that natural ecosystems are incredibly important to the health and functioning of our planet and human populations. Calculating this environmental economic value makes it possible to have conversations and conduct analyses on the costs and benefits of protecting natural systems as part of doing business. In our next Fish Report, we'll discuss what it means to apply this concept to fish like salmon and striped bass. Stay tuned to find out what crunching the numbers reveals a salmon to be worth.

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Photographic overlook

We've always taken pride in our photography at FISHBIO, especially in our pictures of fish, which are notoriously hard to document. Now, thanks to artist Todd Gilens, we've gone big: building-size big. Gilens has used a FISHBIO photograph of juvenile Sacramento suckers to turn the front of an art and architecture studio into its own art piece called "Overlook." The piece is now on display at 1286 Sanchez St. in San Francisco through the end of August.


Gilens, who has created many environmentally themed projects, said he wanted to tie the studio to the historic natural environment of its location. The studio sits in San Francisco's Noe Valley, which once collected the water that flowed off Twin Peaks, the major geographic feature in the city. "I looked at the old drainage patterns and the stream that ran through what's now the commercial strip of Noe Valley would have passed by the architecture studio," Gilens told FISHBIO. "If you were [at the studio] in pre-colonial times, it would have been a good place to overlook the stream as it went by."


Although there aren't any historical fish surveys of that now-vanished stream, a local biologist gave Gilens a list of species that would likely have inhabited the location, based on current species distributions in San Francisco Bay tributaries. An online search lead him to FISHBIO's photo of the Sacramento sucker in this blog post. Gilens said he was looking for a certain type of photograph to work with the building's complicated façade. "I'm not trying to present a billboard that shows a picture of fish in an isolated way, but to make a synthesis of fish and architecture, so it flips back and forth between the building and these swimming beings," he said... Read more > 
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