Deliberating over the value of plankton

Workshop discussion notes. Credit: Patrick Perkins

BIOcean5D team member Gilles Jean-Louis reflects on a series of successful public deliberation workshops, exploring the monetary valuation of plankton and the marine ecosystem services it provides.

Directly and indirectly, the ocean contributes to human health, planetary health and our quality of life. For example, roughly half of the oxygen production on Earth comes from the ocean’s plankton. The ocean also absorbs almost a third of the carbon dioxide we emit each year, playing a major role in climate regulation. 

In that sense, the ocean is a natural capital stock, from which society derives ecosystem services. It’s very difficult to put an economic value on these services – but doing so can be a useful tool to highlight the importance of ocean conservation in policy- and decision-making. 

Through a series of workshops, we’re exploring how the public values the ecosystem services provided by marine biodiversity along the European coast, with a special focus on plankton. This work is conducted by Gilles Jean-Louis, Bartosz Bartkowski, Julian Massenberg (based at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany) and Eva Wanek (based at Institut Jean Nicod in Paris, France).

As the year draws to a close, and with 12 of 15 workshops successfully completed, environmental economist Gilles shares his highlights so far. 

Exploring how the public values marine natural capital: Gilles Jean Louis

My work on BIOcean5D investigates how the public values marine natural capital, hoping to improve and inform strategies that protect biodiversity. 

To understand how the general population values marine biodiversity, we’re conducting 15 deliberative monetary valuation (DMV) workshops across Europe. DMV invites participants to consider the cultural, social and ethical aspects of ecosystem services, alongside their economic valuation, as part of an open discussion. Our workshops are focused primarily on plankton; members of the local public receive a thematic introduction, have the opportunity to ask questions to a marine science expert, and are then asked to answer a questionnaire and discuss topics such as how they are personally affected by changes in marine biodiversity.

So far, we have conducted 12 workshops at coastal locations and locations further inland – three each in Poland, Italy, Germany and the Basque Country in Spain. As I designed the study, planned the workshops and will be analysing the data, my main role is to make sure that everything goes according to plan on site and that the field data is obtained properly. While I’m also available for questions that help participants with the understanding of the topic, I am there more as an observer than a participant – since I don’t speak all the relevant languages, we hired professional moderators for all the workshops. 

“People are hungry for knowledge”

Two things have stood out to me so far. The first is that organising and conducting such a comprehensive series of workshops is less difficult when you have people who support you. That’s why I would like to thank everyone who helped, whether it was with expert knowledge, finding a seminar room or other assistance.

The second is that most people are hungry for knowledge about how marine biodiversity, and in particular plankton, affects us. Not only do phytoplankton provide the foundation of the marine food web, they also play a major role in climate regulation by consuming carbon dioxide through photosynthesis on a scale similar to forests and land plants. In one particular workshop, participants concluded that more people should know about how plankton support human well-being and that everyone should have the chance to hear about and discuss the issue.

To me, the best thing about a workshop is when participants leave with smiles on their faces, saying “thank you” for the new knowledge they have gained about plankton and the ecosystem services provided. 

Nowadays, if something doesn’t have an economic value, it can be easily overlooked by decision makers – especially when cost-benefit analyses are the basis of their decisions. The valuation of ecosystem services helps to minimise this risk, but economic valuation should go beyond simply putting a price tag on something. 

I hope our workshops will enable us to better understand why some people value marine biodiversity more than others or different aspects of it and the role that deliberation and social interaction may play in this context.

Gilles, Bartosz, Julian and Eva will conclude the deliberative monetary valuation workshops in early 2024, in France (Brest and Rennes)