How to protect our oceans: use more carrots

Incentives to protect marine and coastal environments could work more effectively than a ‘command and control’ approach, but only if reinforced by efficient, transparent and equitable governance, says Senay Habtezion.

Senay Habtezion's picture
Guest blog by
1 November 2013

Coral reefs provide us with goods worth hundreds of billions of dollars but are in decline. Copyright: 2004 Richard Ling

There's plenty more than fish in the sea. Spend a day at the beach and you can't help but appreciate how much the oceans enrich our lives. The sea spray, the waves, the salty air, the calls of the seagulls and the colours of the seashells are sure to lift your spirits.

Although we don’t tend to think of them as such, these are among the goods and services we receive from our marine and coastal ecosystems, along with the more obvious fish that we eat.

There are also many other, less discernible yet more vital benefits we collectively enjoy. Coastal ecosystems regulate our climate systems, help purify the air we breathe, and shield us from storms and other natural hazards.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that we net approximately US$375 billion worth of economic value per year from coral reefs alone.

Failure to protect

Ecosystem goods and services are public goods. As such we must govern them with an assortment of laws, policies and institutions. This is particularly the case with marine and coastal ecosystem goods, services and resources, such as fish, which tend to be more mobile, and therefore harder to track. Rights and responsibilities over the coasts and oceans also tend to be less clear, especially on the High Seas.

The pressures on such ecosystems are diverse —including urbanization, development, overfishing and climate change. But current 'command and control' ocean governance systems in most countries have not effectively protected our coasts and our oceans. Regulatory efforts to preserve these ecosystems have, for example, have not halted the decline of fish stocks and coral reefs.

Globally, coral reefs have declined by 38 per cent since 1980, and tropical coral reefs may further plummet by 2050, according to UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook 5. Similarly, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture states that 80 per cent of the 523 world fish stocks for which information is available are fully exploited or over-exploited.

It's time to promote governance systems that emphasize 'carrots' as well as 'sticks'.

The case for 'good carrots'

Payment ecosystem services (PES), provides ‘carrots’, or incentives, to preserve ecosystems and their services. The approach would remunerate farmers and landholders who plant mangrove forests, which protect coastlines and boost fish catches, or fishing communities who use responsible methods to maintain fish stocks.

Latin American countries provide early examples of PES in action. For instance, a regionally integrated project in Colombia, Costa Rica and Nicaragua has led to an increase in tree cover and decrease in degraded pasture.

Experience in countries where large-scale PES and similar incentive arrangements (such as reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD+) and the Clean Development Mechanism are being implemented show that these programmes work where there is good governance.

Lessons from a recent World Bank commissioned study on PES programmes in Latin America show that good governance is a central prerequisite of success. Specific attributes of good governance that need to underpin PES regimes include:

  • ensuring equitable rights for communities to access and use forests, land and other resources
  • ensuring broad participation of the communities and community-based organisations
  • promoting transparency and accountability (an absence of corruption and misuse of funds allocated for conservation); and
  • writing off ‘perverse’ subsidies that encourage environmental degradation.

Adding PES and other incentives into the policy mix is a smarter way to go about the task of ecosystem preservation — 'carrots' can deliver. But PES and other incentive regimes and programmes can only deliver if reinforced by good governance across sectors and scales.

Senay Habtezion is Program Specialist at the International START Secretariat, Washington, DC. Email:

This blog post is based on his chapter in the forthcoming book Economic Incentives for Marine and Coastal Conservation edited by IIED researcher Essam Yassin Mohammed. IIED will launch the book at our London office on 28 November. Contact:

Find out more about how to design effective PES schemes or read more about IIED’s new project, which is looking at the possibility of enhancing the effectiveness of an economic incentive mechanism for fisheries management in Bangladesh.

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