Marine Sciences, Science, sustainability

The Hidden Treasures of the Deep: An Introduction to the Ecosystem Services of the Ocean

“In the space of a single human lifetime, society finds itself suddenly confronted with a daunting complex of trade-offs between some of its most important activities and ideals. Recent trends raise disturbing questions about the extent to which today’s people may be living at the expense of their descendants, casting doubt upon the cherished goal that each successive generation will have greater prosperity.” – (Daley, 1999)

Ecosystem services are the benefits that society derives from an ecosystem, where benefits can be direct or indirect. Did you know that Ecosystem services can be assigned a dollar value? These monetary values are often used in decision-making and incorporated into management practices and tools. Subsequently, there are four main kinds of ecosystem services that are identified by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA); a significant UN-sponsored initiative to examine the effects of human activity on ecosystems and human well-being. These categories are:

  1. Provisioning: Every form of benefit that can be obtained from nature is a provisioning service. An example is seafood.
  2. Regulating: Many of the essential services that enable people to live their lives are provided by ecosystems. An example is flood protection.
  3. Cultural: A cultural service is a non-material benefit that helps people grow and advance culturally. An example of cultural services includes the role ecosystems play in local, national, and international cultures.
  4. Sustaining: The continuity of essential natural processes such as photosynthesis, nitrogen cycling, soil formation, and the water cycle is necessary for the survival of ecosystems. Without them, ecosystems would not be able to exist. The very existence of even basic life forms is made possible by these processes, let alone the existence of entire ecosystems and human beings.


Despite providing invaluable ecosystem services, marine ecosystems are arguably the most exploited ecosystem on Earth. Increasing human activity in the deep sea has created an urgent need for evaluating impacts on ecosystem health. Anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions have resulted in warming, deoxygenation, and acidification that will change how direct human activity (for example fishing) impacts deep-sea habitats. Because of the lack of regulations pertaining to specific maritime areas and the lack of knowledge about this combination of effects, extreme caution is required. You can read more on the division of the deep sea through UNCLOS and the ISA here.

We can’t afford to disrupt the ecosystem services that our oceans provide in light of the current climate crisis. According to the IPCC (2014), the ocean has absorbed roughly ⅓ of carbon dioxide emitted through chemical, biological and physical mechanisms. Essentially, the deep sea functions as a huge heat sink that decelerates anthropogenic global warming. In actuality, the ocean is a huge carbon repository, holding 50 times as much carbon as the atmosphere. The ocean has so far absorbed around 30% of all CO2 emissions from human activities over the past 200 years, but eventually, it will absorb considerably more. Carbon, in the form of CO2, takes time to make its way into the deep ocean (Bopp et al, 2019). The ocean’s capacity to store heat has helped reduce global warming, but it has also changed the ocean’s chemistry. The intricate interplay between continuous greenhouse gas emissions and modifications in the ocean’s capacity to store excess heat will be a key factor in determining the pace and scope of long-term climate change impacts, which will have repercussions for the world economy.

The deep sea is home to a variety of habitats that contribute value to society as a result of their operation and it is also the largest ecosystem on Earth. In managing our impact on the environment, it is crucial to consider ecosystem services, such as food provision and climate regulation, particularly in light of the numerous stressors associated with climate and human activities. Despite the presence of unresolved problems in the deep sea, such as scientific ambiguity, gaps in jurisdiction, and insufficient public participation, implementing preventative measures to combat environmental damage and potential crises could result in the sustainable use of the deep sea and its various ecosystem services for the long term, both economically and environmentally.


Daily, G. C. (1997). Introduction: what are ecosystem services. Nature’s services: Societal dependence on natural ecosystems, 1(1).

Adopted, I. P. C. C. (2014). Climate change 2014 synthesis report. IPCC: Geneva, Switzerland.

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