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Definition of Ecosystem Services

The concept of Ecosystem Services has developed gradually for over a century as a way of recognizing the dependence of human societies on nature-based systems [1]. He defined ecosystem services as …the conditions and processes by which natural ecosystems, and the species that make them up, sustain and fulfil human life. Some of what sustains human life is obvious: food, drinkable water, breathable air, and liveable climates. Each of these needs is underpinned by a set of ecosystem services; so it’s correct to affirm that, Ecosystem Services are the transformation of a set of natural assets (soil, plants and animals, air and water) into assets that increase human welfare.

Coastal and Marine ecosystem Services

The following table 1.1 [2] presents a summary of all services coming from these kind of ecosystems.

Ecosystem services.JPG

Services are provided from which humans benefit and they are not only life-support services, but also life-fulfilling services. So close to services like filtration and delivery of water; absorption of wastes; maintenance of atmosphere and climate within limits suitable for human life; maintenance of soil fertility and structure; protection from floods and other extreme weather and maintenance of habitat and biodiversity, they give services like provision of cultural, spiritual and intellectual stimulation and maintenance of other species for their existence value. According to the classification in Table 1.1, what follows is an explanation of the meaning related to each category of Services.

Provisioning services. These are the products people obtain from ecosystems, such as:

  • Food. This includes the vast range of food products derived from plants, animals, and microbes.
  • Fiber. Materials such as wood, jute, cotton, hemp, silk, and wool.
  • Timber and Fuel. Wood, dung, and other biological materials serve as sources of energy.
  • Medicines and other resources. Many medicines, biocides, food additives such as alginates, and biological materials are derived from ecosystems, also the genes and genetic information used for animal and plant breeding and biotechnology are services from these ecosystems.

Regulating Services. These are the benefits the society obtains from the regulation of ecosystem processes, including:

  • Biological regulation and control. It means the trophic-dynamic regulation of populations such as predator regulation of pest prey populations.
  • Freshwater storage and retention. Ecosystems provide water by watersheds, reservoirs and aquifers.
  • Hydrological balance or Water regulation. They regulate hydrological flows such as water for agriculture, or for industrial processes or for transportation.
  • Athmospheric and Climate regulation. Ecosystems contribute chemicals to and extract chemicals from the atmosphere, influencing many aspects of air quality, they regulate global temperature, precipitation and other biologically mediated climate processes. For example they regulate greenhouse gases emissions or DMS (dimethylsulphide) production which affect cloud formation.
  • Human disease control. Ecosystems provide for a control of pathogens and disease vectors.
  • Waste processing. Ecosystems can be a source of impurities (e.g., in fresh water) but also can help to filter out and decompose organic wastes introduced into inland waters and coastal and marine ecosystems and assimilate and detoxify compounds through soil and sub-soil processes.
  • Flood/storm protection or Natural hazard regulation. The presence of coastal ecosystems such as mangroves and coral reefs can reduce the damage caused by hurricanes or large waves.
  • Erosion control and sediment retention. Vegetative cover, beaches or each type of land close to coastal and marine ecosystems play an important role to prevent landslides and loss of soil by wind, runoff, or other processes.

Cultural Services. These are the nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences, including:

  • Cultural and amenity. Each ecosystem has its own culture and amenities which are one factor influencing its inhabitants’ lifestyle.
  • Recreational. People often choose where to spend their leisure time based in part on the characteristics of the natural or cultivated landscapes in a particular area.
  • Aesthetics. Many people find beauty or aesthetic value in various aspects of ecosystems, as reflected in the support for parks, scenic drives, and the selection of housing locations.
  • Education and research. Ecosystems and their components and processes provide the basis for both formal and informal education in many societies, influencing the types of knowledge systems developed by people.

Supporting Services. Supporting services are those that are necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services.

  • Biochemical. Each ecosystem, thanks to its high level of biodiversity, provides many genetic and biochemical resources for agricultural and pharmaceutical industries
  • Nutrient cycling and fertility. Approximately 20 nutrients essential for life, but there are four global nutrient cycles through ecosystems which are fundamental such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), sulphur (S) and carbon (C). A right balance of these elements maintains a good fertility of everything, soil and water, essential for producing food, timber, fibre, fuel and other ecosystem goods and services.

Biodiversity strongly influences the condition of ecosystem services, from the provisioning services to the cultural ones both directly and indirectly.

Ecosystem Services and Human Well-being

The concept of Ecosystem Services is becoming popular as a way to encourage discussion about the dependence of humans on nature and what that means socially and economically. The relationship between human well-being and ecosystem services is not linear. When an ecosystem service is abundant relative to the demand, a marginal increase in ecosystem services generally contributes only slightly to human well-being (or may even diminish it). But when the service is relatively scarce, a small decrease can substantially reduce human well-being. The degradation of ecosystem services represents a loss of a capital asset. Both renewable resources such as ecosystem services and non-renewable resources such as mineral deposits, soil nutrients, and fossil fuels are capital assets. Farber et al. [3], identify a “critical threshold” in the availability of ecosystem services as a limit beyond which non-linear patterns, irreversible changes and catastrophes may occur, with major environmental and economic consequences. The availability of natural capital are crucial elements of economic systems, even if they are ignored by economic accounting systems. From the sustainability point of view, the biophysical threshold is more critical than the economic one. Yet traditional national accounts do not include measures of resource depletion or of the degradation of renewable resources. As a result, a country could cut its forests and deplete its fisheries, and this would show only as a positive gain to GDP despite the loss of the capital asset. Moreover, many ecosystem services are available freely to those who use them (freshwater in aquifers, for instance, or the use of the atmosphere as a sink for pollutants), and so, again, their degradation is not reflected in standard economic measures. For this reason, a branch of economics is starting to try to give a value to ecosystems goods and services, and these values come from their role in supporting our lives, their cheapness, and our limited ability to replace them with human-engineered alternatives.


  1. Daily, G. E. (1997). Nature's Services - Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems. Island Press, Washington.
  2. UNEP (2006). Marine and Coastal ecosystems and Human Well-being. A synthesis report based on the findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. UNEP; MEA
  3. Farber, S.C., Costanza, R., Wilson, M.A., (2002). Economic and ecological concepts for valuing ecosystem services. Ecological Economics, 41, 375–392.