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Can an ecosystem service approach strengthen river conservation?

May 2, 2014
River Ribble, Lancashire.  Image: RSJ

River Ribble, Lancashire. Image: RSJ

Worldwide efforts to conserve river ecosystems are failing, and new approaches for stronger conservation planning are required.  This is the underlying context of a new editorial ‘Rebalancing the philosophy of river conservation’ by Mars scientist Steve Ormerod in Aquatic Conservation Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.  Ormerod suggests that the ecosystem service approach can offer a valuable addition to current river conservation strategies, potentially providing convincing new arguments to help halt freshwater biodiversity loss.

Growing human populations are putting increasing pressure on freshwater ecosystems globally: altering and fragmenting river flows; abstracting water for agriculture, sanitation and drinking; and releasing unprecedented amounts of pollutants into freshwaters.  As David Strayer and David Dudgeon outlined in a 2010 paper, despite freshwater ecosystems occupying less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, they support around 10% of all known global species.

As well as being hotspots for biodiversity, freshwaters are often focal points for human development, the negative effects of which – pollution, overfishing, flow fragmentation – mean that freshwater species are more threatened than those in marine or land environments.  Many key threats to freshwater ecosystems are generated at the river catchment scale, where the interactions (and potential intensifications) of ecological stresses caused by pollutants from agricultural and urban development are not fully understood (as Ormerod previously wrote in 2010).

Industrial River Ribble, Lancashire. Image: Blog Preston

Industrial River Ribble, Lancashire. Image: Blog Preston

However, the picture isn’t necessarily bleak.  In this new editorial, Ormerod argues that the ecosystem services approach to managing nature – where the benefits provided by an ecosystem are valued in explicitly human terms rather than on an ethical basis – has the potential to strengthen and reinvigorate river conservation management.

The basis of the ecosystem service argument is that well-functioning ecosystems are fundamental to human livelihoods.  However, many ecosystem services – food and fuel production, flood regulation and water supply to name a few – are undervalued, or regarded as ‘public goods’, by the models that structure global economic development.

In this context, ecosystem services are framed by some conservationists as a powerful means of convincing people, institutions and governments of the value of the natural world under the logic of economic and social self-interest.  In other words, I might be motivated to conserve nature, not necessarily because of any ethical arguments, but because of the benefits nature provides to me and my livelihood.  As a result, the approach has gained traction to become one of the dominant themes of conservation policy in recent years.

Ormerod suggests that this ‘enlightened self-interest’ is likely to provide a stronger basis for both citizens and policy makers to become more motivated to conserve rivers.  This approach may have the potential to provide common ground for individuals and institutions across catchments and river basins to collaborate in planning conservation, a particularly valuable asset given the numerous competing concerns of stakeholders along a river’s course.

Ormerod’s argument is that the ecosystem service approach can sit as an addition to existing river conservation approaches – broadly described as ‘protect the best, restore the rest‘ – where healthy, diverse ecosystems are conserved, and those that are polluted or degraded are restored as far as possible.  This existing approach is ingrained in European policies such as the Habitats Directive and Water Framework Directive.

New approaches to conservation policy?  Image:  Europa JRC

New approaches to conservation policy? Image: Europa JRC

Water supply from river ecosystems is undoubtedly one of most indispensable ecosystem services.  Given that rivers are hotspots for biodiversity, human development and ecosystem services, if the ecosystem service approach has the potential to strengthen conservation planning anywhere, then river ecosystems seem a likely candidate for success.

According to a 2011 paper Ormerod co-authored with Edward Maltby for the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (link opens as zipped download), evidence is emerging from rivers and their catchments that conservation priorities based on biodiversity conservation and ecosystem service provision may not be mutually exclusive.

In other words, the ecosystem service approach may help strengthen conservation efforts by providing convincing arguments for a range of users, land owners and policy makers to make decisions which not only serve their social and economic self-interest, but also help avert biodiversity loss.

Ormerod’s point is that the approach has been under-applied to freshwater conservation, and given the wide range of important ecosystem services that rivers provide, may well help provide new and convincing arguments for their conservation.  New tools in a toolkit of strategies to help halt biodiversity loss.

Zebra mussels.  Image: Wikipedia

Zebra mussels. Image: Wikipedia

However, there are numerous considerations to be addressed.  The ecosystem service approach to conserving nature has drawn criticism on both practical and philosophical grounds.   It is argued that the approach supports the conservation of those species that provide notable and financial benefits to humans and ignores those that do not.  As Kent Redford and Bill Adams pointed out in a 2009 Conservation Biology editorial, zebra mussels are far better at filtering pollutants out of water than any ‘native’ UK species – should we therefore prioritise their (non-native, invasive) populations for the ecosystem services they provide?

Similarly, if we value nature only for its potential utilitarian worth, are we not missing the reasons – ethics, curiosity, beauty, wonder – why most people are motivated to care about and conserve the natural world?  Can species and ecosystems really be reduced and appropriately catalogued into commodities?  Can they be accurately mapped, and what about the effects of geographical scale on their provision?  Does their provision benefit everyone across society, or are there those who remain marginalised? How will planning for ecosystem services be affected by climate change?

These are debates to continue more fully in another post.  For now, we’d be interested to hear your thoughts, comments and feedback on Steve’s paper.

Fundamentally, there are (at least) two major questions arising from the paper.  First, how can the ecosystem service approach help strengthen freshwater conservation?  Second, can the priorities of ecosystem service based approaches to river conservation be integrated and ‘rebalanced’ with existing biodiversity-orientated approaches?  If so, how?

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