What are ecosystem services?

By definition, ecosystem services are the processes by which the environment produces resources that are useful to people, including services and/or products that we value for our economy and well being. Often we take these resources for granted, for example from an economical standpoint, could you put a price tag on fishery habitat on Long Island? How about natural erosion control? Or thinking aesthetically, how much is it worth to you to have clear, clean water in our bays? The services that eelgrass meadows provide may not be apparent to most people, but the truth is that the value of eelgrass is immeasurable, affecting all of us who live on Long Island, whether we know it or not.

Here is a list of the “services” that eelgrass provides:

Erosion Control: Waves and currents naturally cause the sand on our beaches to shift, a process known as littoral drift. Structures such as bulkheads, jetties and groins are often built by property owners to prevent sediments from shifting, but can often cause even more erosion than before. Eelgrass meadows slow currents and reduce wave forces, and rhizome/root mats stabilize the sea floor by trapping sediments, preventing sediments from shifting or becoming resuspended, helping to reduce the erosion on our shorelines. This benefits waterfront property owners as well as privat beach associations not only by controlling damage caused by erosion, but also by limiting flood damage. The same holds true for public properties including parks, beaches and road ends where tax money, ultimately affecting all local citizens, might otherwise have to be used for repairs and maintenance of these areas, such as importing sand.

Improves Water Quality: As nitrogen is introduced to our bays (via runoff from lawns, storm drains, etc.), it becomes available to microalgae which could cause harmful algae blooms like brown tide. Eelgrass is able to extract a portion of this nitrogen directly from the water column and use it to grow. Eelgrass also improves water quality by allowing particulates suspended in the water column to drop to the bottom and become trapped by the roots and rhizomes. Not only does good water quality keep our marine ecosystems healthy, but it likely keeps our local economy sustained as well. For example, in areas that value aesthetics such as eastern Long Island [which is known for its rural maritime landscape and tourism], it is safe to say that clean, beautiful bays mean good business.

Food/Habitat for valuable fishery species: The economic value of eelgrass as habitat alone is immense. New York seafood industries contributed at least $7.9 billion to the state economy in 1999(and employed over 96,000 people), and this doesn’t include the sport fishing industries which alone generated $3.6 billion**. Many of the species contributing to these numbers utilize eelgrass meadows for at least part of their life history for food, habitat (often as a nursery for juveniles), or spawning grounds. These species include bay scallops, lobsters, squid, summer flounder, winter flounder, blackfish, sea bass, blue crabs, and striped bass. For more details on New York’s seafood industry, check out http://www.nyseafood.org.

Maintains Biodiversity: Though we may not consider all species that benefit from eelgrass valuable, we have to remember that just because a plant or animal isn’t “likable” or doesn’t directly contribute to our economy, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. A human induced extinction of a species can have a cascading affect on other species in that food web, possibly resulting in population collapses and extinctions of more "valuable" species. Taking a step back to look at the big picture, and considering seagrass habitats are ranked as one of the most diverse community types on earth, they make a significant contribution to the world’s overall biodiversity. And since diverse and healthy ecosystems go hand in hand, they contribute to the ocean's overall health.


**The Economic Contribution of the Sport Fishing, Commercial Fishing and Seafood Industries to New York State, New York Sea Grant Publication Number NYSGI-T-01-001, Stony Brook, NY, May 2001)

Next: Eelgrass Monitoring: Why Monitor?


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