Just as vehicles often hit animals on busy roadways, vessels on our busy waterways often strike marine mammals. Depending on the speed or size of the vessel, animals can be injured or killed. These collisions may go unreported or, often, unnoticed by ship crews. In some cases, particularly in cases of collisions with whales, vessels may also sustain significant damage.
Many of the busiest ports in the country aren’t far from protected areas home to endangered and threatened species. Collisions with these creatures are particularly devastating because they cut numbers of already dwindling species.
For example, more than 25 species of whales live in or visit the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS), including endangered blue whales. The sanctuary also falls along routes for vessels traveling to the port of Los Angeles and Long Beach. More than 3,000 vessels travel through the area every year.
To protect the blue whales and other species in the sanctuary, vessels can slow down or take a different route to avoid collisions. But do these changes cost shippers money? Not necessarily.
NOAA researchers studied the impact of slower vessel speeds and different travel routes in and around CINMS on shippers’ bottom line. Economists found that shippers could actually save money by both reducing their speed and changing their route around the sanctuary. That’s because reducing speed is more fuel-efficient, while changing shipping routes makes travel time shorter.
Slowing down also decreases emissions, leading to better air quality, and makes ships quieter. Noisy ships can disturb marine mammals, causing them to change their behavior in ways that may be detrimental to their survival.
Trash in our ocean and on our beaches is bad for marine animals. They can get tangled in it or eat it and become sick or starve. Trash on the beach is also bad for tourism. While it may seem obvious that people prefer a beach that is not littered with debris, what is less obvious is how much a clean beach is worth in terms of tourism and recreation dollars.
A 2014 economic study put a price tag on exactly how much Orange County, California, residents could save by cleaning up the beach. Cleaning up just a quarter of the trash on beaches in Orange County could save residents roughly $32 million during the summer by not having to travel long distances to other beaches. Eliminating all the trash could mean $148 million extra in the pockets of Orange County residents.
Coastal ecosystems face threats from a source that might surprise you: too many nutrients. What’s waste to humans is food to plankton that live in the ocean. Nutrients come in the form of wastewater, runoff from farm fields and lawns, and airborne nutrients from burning coal and gasoline. When they get into coastal waters, these nutrients feed tiny plants that can, if they grow to excessive amounts, use up much of the oxygen in the water when they die, fall to the bottom and rot. Low oxygen levels in the water can in turn kill or injure other animals in the ecosystem, such as fish or shellfish. This process is called eutrophication, and it’s a big problem that can lead to massive “dead zones” along the coast where ocean life can’t thrive because the water lacks oxygen.
One way to try and cut down on the amount of nutrients in coastal waters, and prevent the cascade of ecosystem damage that results, is both environmentally and economically friendly: growing shellfish (e.g. oysters, clams, mussels) for seafood and restoring oyster reefs.
A study by NOAA researchers showed that, in the Potomac River estuary, all the extra nitrogen from wastewater, urban and agricultural runoff, or the atmosphere could be removed if 40 percent of the river bottom were used to farm shellfish, or with a combination of farming shellfish and restoring oyster reefs. That’s because shellfish are filter feeders, sucking up nutrients and spitting out clean water.
The bottom line is that more oyster reefs and shellfish beds along our coasts not only aid the environment, but also provide us with economic and health benefits — and deliver additional sources of delicious seafood.
Of course, oysters and clams are only a small piece of a much larger puzzle. We need to consider the complex ecosystems of which shellfish and other marine life are just parts. Thriving coastal and ocean ecosystems are closely tied to our economy, health, and even our safety.
Consider the many services provided by just two types of ecosystems: coral reefs and wetlands. Coral reefs provide coastal protection, habitat for fisheries, and sources of pharmaceuticals. Wetlands also provide coastal protection and habitat for fisheries as well as water filtering and carbon sequestration. While spending money to protect and restore these ecosystems costs money up front, one NOAA study in the Gulf of Mexico found that these efforts can save $7 for every dollar spent.
From the very large to the very small — protecting coastal ecosystems to cleaning up trash on a beach — these examples show how many solutions to our ocean and coastal problems are often also good for our economy.