Shallow reef and limestone Islet in Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, Bahamas.
Exuma Cays, Bahamas: Shallow reef and limestone Islet in Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, Bahamas. © Jeff Yonover

Land & Water Stories

Mapping Ocean Wealth

How science is determining the financial value of Australia’s Great Southern Seascapes.

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The southern coastlines  of temperate Australia are home to some of the most diverse underwater seascapes in the world. From giant kelp forests to vast seagrass meadows, cool water corals and kaleidoscope sponge gardens, 85% of the estimated 12,000 marine species are found nowhere else on Earth. They provide benefits to more than 16 million Australians (70% of our population) in the form of fresh seafood, abundant recreation, removal of pollution, protection of shorelines and storage of carbon.

Despite these obvious benefits, southern seascapes can be described as ‘forgotten coastlines’. Until now, relatively little attention has been paid to their protection or restoration – and the essential human services they provide – from over exploitation, expanding coastal development and coastal eutrophication.

Mapping Ocean Wealth will create a new attitude towards conserving our southern seascapes and establish the case for the ecological, financial and social benefits of restoration. It will change public perception and the way we value, support and resource marine restoration and protection.

What is Mapping Ocean Wealth?

Through our global marine conservation work, The Nature Conservancy knows that a major limiting factor in large-scale protection and restoration is the lack of sound scientific information to clearly communicate the social and financial benefits of these habitats to humans.

Our Mapping Ocean Wealth project will address this by calculating and describing – in quantitative and spatial terms — all that the ocean provides, in an effort to support smart investment and decision-making to sustain the ocean now and for future generations.

Mapping Ocean Wealth combines tools and maps to make scientific data more accessible to audiences at all levels. The purpose is to visualise and simplify global, regional and local ecosystem benefits for use in natural resource planning and policy decisions.

By mapping the wealth of our oceans, we can move from using broad global averages that illustrate the value of oceans at general scales, to very specific local detail that informs decision-making and evaluates nature as an asset. The fine-resolution maps and models based on local data can help inform and improve coastal and ocean planning, conservation, development and investment decisions.

Mapping Ocean Wealth in Australia

Our Australian Mapping Ocean Wealth project will develop specific local maps and models focusing on Port Phillip and Western Port Bays in Victoria and the Richmond River Estuary in New South Wales. This new data will also contribute to mapping ocean wealth information globally.

What habitat types are we focused on?

  • Saltmarsh – Nationally, Australia’s sub-tropical and temperate coastal saltmarshes are listed as vulnerable. This is concerning as they provide a range of ecosystem services including water filtration, carbon sequestration, nursery habitats for fish species, coastal protection and stabilisation, as well as providing the base of the food chain for marine and estuarine communities.
  • Mangroves – Australia has the third largest area of mangroves globally, representing approximately 6.4% of the world’s total mangrove area. While most occur in the tropical north, there are also significant areas in temperate Australia that extend as far south as Corner Inlet (Gippsland, Victoria). This is the most southerly mangrove location in the world. Providing important benefits including coastal protection, fisheries production, nutrient uptake and carbon storage, these mangroves are recognised as one of the most productive habitats on Earth.
  • Seagrass – Seagrasses are a major feature of temperate coastlines in Australia with more than half of the world’s species represented. They provide important ecosystem services including acting as a nursery for juvenile fish that are of commercial and recreational value, stabilising the sediment and acting as a nutrient sink and carbon store.

What ecosystem services are we focused on?

Mapping Ocean Wealth will focus on four main ecosystem services:

  • Fisheries – One of the ocean’s greatest services is its fisheries that provide a critical human food source worldwide. Many fisheries have close links to particular ecosystems with approximately 95% of all commercially important fish species depending on coastal habitats at some point during their lifecycle. Understanding the benefits and value these habitats provide will help us strengthen and secure fish production, while simultaneously enhancing marine conservation.
  • Recreation and Tourism – Most of Australia’s population lives close to the coast and it plays an important role in our identity through recreation and tourism. By accurately assessing the value of these benefits, we can make the case for investment to protect them.
  • Blue Carbon – ‘Blue Carbon’ refers to the potential of marine/coastal ecosystems to trap and store atmospheric carbon dioxide. Studies have found that mangroves, saltmarshes and seagrass habitats are among the most productive on the planet for not only storing large amounts of carbon in their living biomass, but also sequestering it in the surrounding soil.
  • Coastal Protection – Coastal ecosystems play an important role in coastal protection, reducing the impact of storms, erosion and flooding to coastal communities. As a result, natural defences can reduce both the risks and costs of coastal defence.


Australia’s Mapping Ocean Wealth project is being undertaken in conjunction with Deakin University and is supported by HSBC Bank Australia and the Ian Potter Foundation.

Examples of Ecosystem Service benefits from Mapping Ocean Wealth projects around the world

A Mapping Ocean Wealth project in the Gulf of Mexico found that just one hectare of oyster reef would add 3,200 adult blue crabs to the population every year. A study in 2003 estimated that some 121 million people worldwide took part in nature-based travel and tourism activities include wildlife watching, recreational fishing and scuba diving.
At a larger scale, across 31 major bays and estuaries on the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard of the USA, oyster reefs are generating approximately 185,000 metric tons of fish annually. Recreational fishing around mangroves has been estimated to contribute $1 billion per year toward Florida’s economy.
An existing study from temperate Australia has calculated that each year, a single hectare of seagrass generates some 30,000 additional fish to the community, equivalent to 1 kilogram of fish for every square metre. This equates to a seagrass bed just one hectare in size generating a commercial fishery enhancement worth in the order of $32,000 annually.  
Mangroves host disproportionate amounts of carbon — although they only occupy 0.6% of tropical forests by area they have 1.6% of the total tropical forest biomass. A global assessment of mangroves found that a mere 100 metres of mangroves can reduce wave height by two-thirds, while very wide mangrove forests can significantly reduce flooding from storm surges.
Global models estimate that every year coastal wetlands sequester enough CO2 to offset the burning of over 1 billion barrels of oil. In the Gulf of Mexico experts have calculated that oyster reefs save communities $85,000 per year, per hectare when used in place of artificial breakwaters.

Source: Spalding, MD; Brumbaugh, RD and Landis, E (2016) Atlas of Ocean Wealth The Nature Conservancy, Arlington VA

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