The future for MPA revenue is challenging. MPAs were chronically underfunded even before the COVID-19 pandemic started. Now — amid COVID-related budget cuts, global recession, the collapse of most tourism, and other factors — many MPAs are in even worse shape. New and more sustainable revenue streams are sorely needed, more than ever.
Could blue carbon credits be one of those new revenue streams? Blue carbon is the capture and storage of carbon in coastal and ocean ecosystems, such as mangroves or seagrasses. Last month, MPA News profiled two MPA projectsthat are implementing blue carbon strategies as a source of revenue – the first MPAs to do so. Both projects are restoring mangrove forests and generating credits based on the tons of carbon those new forests have captured and stored. Then they sell those credits to global buyers who want to offset their own carbon emissions. This is a whole new way of monetizing MPAs. According to one of the projects (Tahiry Honko in Madagascar), the current demand for blue carbon credits may be as much as a thousand times greater than current supply.
Of course, not every MPA has coastal habitat suitable for restoring mangroves or seagrass. Could blue carbon still be an option for these other sites, including in offshore areas? Some people say yes: that fish and other marine wildlife are a source of carbon capture and storage as well — through their biomass, feces, deadfall, and other mechanisms. In short: the more fish an ecosystem contains, the more carbon is being captured and stored there. In this sense, MPAs could be viewed as an important management option for conserving, restoring, and enhancing fish carbon services. Theoretically, at least, the financial value of well-managed ‘fish carbon’ could be harnessed via carbon credits to support MPAs, similar to the mangrove projects.
Generating those credits may not be easy, however. For one thing, attempts to quantify fish species’ contributions to carbon capture and storage are just getting started. Without such knowledge, it is impossible to certify whether new carbon capture and storage have occurred among fish at a certain site, or in what amount. This makes it hard to place a market value on that carbon. There’s also the problem that fish tend to move around — between national jurisdictions, and into and out of protected areas — raising questions of who would have the right to market such credits if they were certified, and how these fish would be protected against harvest.
That being said, a recent study by the International Monetary Fund (described later in this article) estimated the value of a single living whale to be US $2 million, with most of that value deriving from its carbon services. If one whale is theoretically worth that much, effective MPAs with healthy fish populations could be sitting on a potentially substantial source of revenue, tied to conservation.
So, is there some way we could make this idea of fish carbon actually work? In this issue we speak with several experts on blue carbon about the possibilities.
Editor’s note: As we noted last month, MPA News recognizes that the concept of enabling polluters to offset their carbon emissions by purchasing carbon credits is controversial. Such a system allows polluters to keep polluting, so offsets are at best a transitional tool toward a low-carbon economy. And there is always a chance that carbon storage projects will fail, releasing their carbon right back to the atmosphere or ocean. A restored mangrove forest, for example, could be chopped down illegally and turned to charcoal — or, in the case of fish carbon, a thriving fish population in a no-take MPA could be poached. Furthermore, in order to produce blue carbon credits, other ecosystem services, like food production, may need to be foregone to some extent, which could lead to difficult tradeoffs.
However, carbon offsets are already part of various existing carbon-trading schemes, and will be included as part of the Paris Agreement’s approach to combating climate change. In the context of MPAs, they represent a novel approach to financing, and a way to monetize sites in a manner that rewards making ecosystems healthier and more productive.