The Marine Policy Center (MPC) conducts social scientific research that integrates economics, policy analysis, and law with the Institution’s basic research in ocean sciences. Recent research has included projects that focus on the socio-economic aspects of large marine ecosystems and the economic consequences of shoreline change.

Large marine ecosystems (LMEs) are distinct ecological regions that extend from the coast to the edge of the continental shelf. LMEs are economically important, producing goods and services—including 95 percent of the world’s fish yields—worth billions of dollars a year. Because LME coastlines are heavily populated, these ecosystems are often among the most polluted and degraded on Earth.

The economic value of LMEs demands that their resources and habitats are protected and managed sustainably for both present and future generations. Often this requires international cooperation, since most LMEs span the maritime jurisdictions of more than one country.

In 2005, Research Specialist Porter Hoagland and Associate Scientist Di Jin contributed to an international program to help developing nations implement a pragmatic approach to sustainable management of LMEs. Funded and organized by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank-affiliated Global Environment Facility, the program uses a range of environmental indicators to assess the physical, biological, and human influences on ecological conditions, productivity, economic development, and governance of LMEs.

The socioeconomic aspects have historically received the least study, and Hoagland and Jin took an important first step toward developing such a global assessment. They compiled a database on the marine activities of all coastal nations—including fish landings and aquaculture production, merchant fleets and cargo traffic, offshore oil production, shipbuilding, and tourism—and constructed indices that can be used to characterize the nature and level of marine activity in the world’s 64 identified LMEs.

Combining these maritime indices with data on national rates of life expectancy, education, and per capita income, they developed a ranking of LMEs that can be used to prioritize those regions that are most likely to warrant international attention and support for organized programs of sustainable development.

Hoagland and Jin also underlined the need for more detailed information that can be used to tailor management approaches to particular countries and LMEs. They illustrated the point with in-depth case studies of two LMEs with similar socioeconomic profiles but very different levels of marine industry activity: the Benguela Current LME off southwest Africa and the semi-enclosed Yellow Sea LME in the Northwest Pacific.

MPC researchers are also addressing the economic effects of shoreline change in the United States. Continued growth in coastal populations is likely to intensify the consequences of erosion, severe weather, and sea-level rise, yet there are few reliable estimates of how all of the relevant natural hazards contribute to economic gains and losses.

In order to make informed decisions about the scale of the societal response to the moving shoreline, coastal managers and policymakers need specific estimates at local and regional levels that can also be aggregated to the national level. Working with WHOI coastal geologists, the MPC research team is developing estimates of costs associated with shoreline changes for Cape Cod. They are using data on the location and value of coastal properties, as well as geological data showing the growing influence of sea-level changes due in part to global warming.

—Andy Solow, Director