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Estimating the Economic Impacts of Marine Litter

Measuring the full economic cost of marine litter is complex due to the wide range of economic, social and environmental impacts, the range of sectors impacted by marine litter and the geographic spread of those affected. Some of the impacts are easier to evaluate in economic terms because they are more direct, such as increased marine litter cleaning costs. Others are more complex, for example, the less direct and/or more intangible values such as the impacts of ecosystem deterioration or reductions in quality of life. Furthermore, the spatial and temporal complexity of the impacts related to marine litter result in costs, which may not always be immediate or conspicuous but are nevertheless significant for sustainability (National Research Council 2008). As regards ecosystem degradation, it is useful to differentiate between impacts on biodiversity (species and habitats) and the impact on the ecosystem services flowing from the ecosystem (e.g. provisioning services such as food provision, regulating services such as water and waste purification; and cultural services such as tourism and recreation). As regards economic costs it is important to differentiate between actual economic costs linked to expenditure (e.g. costs of cleanup of beaches; costs associated with damage to or loss of fishing gear or obstruction of motors; eventual cost of hospitalisation from marine debris related health impacts), economic costs of loss of output or revenue (e.g. loss of revenue from fish or loss of income from tourism) and assessment of welfare costs in economic terms (e.g. health impacts from marine debris; assessing the economic value of loss of cultural values such as recreation or landscape aesthetics).

While marine litter has become an increasingly important issue in policy discussions, there is only a very sketchy (albeit growing) body of knowledge on the costs of the impacts. Because of a lack of recording even the direct economic costs of marine litter tend not to be measured (Mouat et al. 2010). Furthermore, even though there is a growing interest in ecosystem services (Costanza et al. 1997; MA 2005; TEEB 2010, 2011) little research has been done to date on the economic cost of marine litter on ecosystem service provision. Having said this, evaluations of marine ecosystem services, which are estimated at €16.5 trillion in one study (Costanza et al. 1997), suggest that even fractional deterioration in provision would represent a significant cost (Beaumont et al. 2007; Galparsoro et al. 2014).

Thus far, studies undertaken to estimate the economic impacts of marine litter have generally focused on the direct losses borne by economic activities adversely affected by the presence of marine litter in the environment, within which they operate and rely upon (see Hall 2000; Mouat et al. 2010; MacFayden 2009; McIlgorm et al. 2011). Largely, such studies have not taken into account the often intangible costs of any social and ecological impacts. Some early studies allude to the need for research to explore these costs. For instance, Kirkley and McConnell (1997, p. 185) call for strategies, which account for the economics related to lost ecological functions driven by marine litter. The intricacy of developing such strategies can be illustrated with the example of alien invasive species. Marine litter provides additional opportunities for marine organisms to travel (including alien invasive species) up to threefold (Barnes 2002). Given that the introduction of alien invasive species can have a detrimental impact on marine ecosystems and biodiversity (Kiessling et al. 2015) and can result in serious economic losses to many marine industries, any estimates, which exclude such ecological impacts, will inevitably fall seriously short of the true cost of the marine litter problem. For example, the introduction of the carpet sea squirt (Didemnum vexillum) in Holyhead Harbour (Wales, U.K.) resulted in an eradication and monitoring program over a decade starting in 2009, which was expected to cost €670,000.

This expenditure was economically justified as allowing the species to spread unpredated and smother organisms and marine habitats would have cost the local mussel fisheries up to €8.6 million alone over 10 years (Holt 2009). Goldstein et al. (2014) recorded the ciliate pathogen Halofolliculina (known to cause skeletal eroding band disease in corals) on floating plastic debris in the western Pacific and suggested that the spread of the disease to Caribbean and Hawaiian corals may be due to rafting on the enormous quantities of litter reported from the area. Increased coral mortality or the introduction of other pathogens via floating marine debris may lead to economic costs, for example through decreased revenues due to falling numbers of visiting tourists.

Despite their partial coverage, the studies that are available provide sufficient information to draw a number of important conclusions. The main economic sectors, which have been identified from the literature as being affected by marine litter are agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries, commercial shipping and recreational boating, coastal municipalities, coastal tourism sector and the emergency rescue services (Hall 2000; Mouat et al. 2010). The economic impacts affecting these sectors are described and quantified where possible (Hall 2000; Mouat et al. 2010; McIlgorm et al. 2011; Jang et al., 2014; Antonelis 2011). They also make attempts at aggregating economic impacts across sectors to provide regional cost estimates. Mouat et al. (2010) provide an estimate of marine litter costs for the Shetland (U.K.) economy, of €1–1.1 million on average per year, an estimate, which consists of actual expenditures and, in some cases, estimated lost income. This is only a single case study, and the sectors affected on Shetland would be affected to varying degrees in other coastal areas. However, these findings clearly demonstrate that the economic impact of marine litter on coastal communities can be extremely high. McIlgorm et al. (2011) calculated the costs of marine litter for 21 economies in the Asia-Pacific region. Similarly to Hall (2000) and Mouat et al. (2010), they consisted of such losses as those from entangled ship propellers, lost fishing time, and tourism losses from deterring visitors, but not the cost of any harm to ecosystem services or other non-market values (McIlgorm et al. 2011). In total, McIlgorm et al. (2011) estimated the cost of marine litter in the Asia-Pacific region to be in the region of €1 billion per year to marine industries, equivalent to 0.3 % of the gross domestic product for the marine sector of the region.

 
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