New CBS research focuses on the ecology and economy of North Sea

Fishing on the North Sea
© Hollandse Hoogte / Bert Spiertz
The Dutch area of the North Sea is our country’s largest nature reserve, but it is also used intensively by maritime traffic and for wind farms, for example. The challenge is to find a way to manage this area sustainably: how do we ensure that today’s policies and activities do not damage biodiversity and our own future well-being? To answer that question, CBS has been working to create a coherent and comprehensive picture of the ecology and economy of the North Sea. This will help the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management to achieve its ambitions for the North Sea.
‘This is relatively new in global terms: you don’t often see such a thorough and coherent method,’ remarks environmental economist Rob van der Veeren. ‘And this is also a first for CBS,’ says Patrick Bogaart, a researcher specialising in nature and economics. They are both referring to a report recently published by CBS that brings together a wide range of data on the Dutch area of the North Sea. Bogaart is the lead author and project leader, and it was Van der Veeren who commissioned the report on behalf of the Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management.

Striking the right balance

The challenge for the national government is to strike a balance between biodiversity in the North Sea and its economic use as a source of food, energy, sand and other natural resources. To do this, a comprehensive picture is required, incorporating ecology, economics and other human activities, and how they interact. ‘We wanted to bring together data on all these themes in a logical manner, explains Van der Veeren. ‘CBS has done this by using data collected itself, as well as data provided by the Ministry. The idea was to bring all that diverse data together and make sense of it in a structured way.’

Nature under pressure

Bogaart continues: ‘We have calculated the economic value of North Sea ecosystems and all the ways in which we make use of the North Sea for economic purposes, for instance. How much does it all add up to in euros? We call this natural capital accounting, and the international term for it is SEEA Ecosystem Accounting. But then we also looked at the flip side: how much pressure is economic activity putting on nature and ecosystems?’ Van der Veeren: ‘Our report is unusual in also including that side of things; there are figures relating to biodiversity and the pressure that is exerted on nature.’

A comprehensive methodology

In order to measure the pressure that nature is under, CBS has applied a method that has long been used by OSPAR, the international organisation responsible for the sustainable management of the North Atlantic Ocean. This method is called ‘DAPSIR’. Bogaart’s explanation of how the method works also illustrates how comprehensive it is, and how one project or activity in the North Sea can have a knock-on effect on other parts of the system. ‘We humans make certain demands on the ecosystem. We want food (fish), energy and sand for the construction sector, for example. We label these with a letter D, which stands for drives. In this case, these drives lead to fishing, the construction of wind farms and sand extraction. These are labelled with an A , for activities. Fishing can affect the ecosystem; but so can a wind farm. Birds sometimes collide with wind turbines, and porpoises can be driven away. The pressure on nature exerted by human activities is represented by the letter P. Pressures on wildlife can affect the ecosystem, leading to dwindling fish stocks for example. This is the S: the state of the ecosystem.’
Wind park
© Hollandse Hoogte/Flip Franssen

Impact on society

All this can have consequences for our society, Bogaart continues. ‘If large quantities of fish are killed today due to toxins, we may not be able to eat fish for a while. But the death of fish is also bad for nature in its own right. This is the letter I, which stands for impact on society. In turn, that impact can provoke a response from society. People may decide to take action against water pollution, for example, or the government might try to exert an influence on what is happening. This is the R, for response. And that brings us to the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, which sets policy and provides information and advice to politicians.’

Data sources

CBS collects the data on economic activities and the pressure which they exert on nature, and also the effect on our well-being as a society. This data finds its way into CBS’s annual Monitor of Well-being. ‘The ecological and chemical data for the report was provided by Ministry sources,’ explains Van der Veeren. As an environmental economist, it is his role to place the Ministry’s request to CBS within a broader context. ‘Natural capital accounting is becoming increasingly important in the European Union. How much are a country’s natural resources worth? How well does nature function? Soon, European countries will be required to provide data on all this. This should be seen in the light of two European framework directives – one on water and the other on marine strategy. At the same time, the United Nations is calling on countries to assess their natural capital by using SEEA Ecosystem Accounting. And internationally there is also a growing need to take action on environmental pressures – using the DAPSIR method for example. This is becoming an increasingly urgent issue around the globe, and we thought it would be useful to get a clearer picture of the situation in the Netherlands.’

Valuable learning process

Van der Veeren gives us two reasons why it is useful for the Netherlands to play a leading role in this field internationally: ‘It enables other countries to learn from us and, at the same time, we can avoid a situation in the future in which we need to apply a method that does not match the Dutch context as well as it could. One of the strengths of this report by Patrick and his colleagues at CBS is that it also outlines the problem-solving process. Because the solutions are not always obvious. How were those solutions reached? That information is very valuable to us, and the rest of the world.

Future use

How does the Ministry plan to respond to the report? Van der Veeren explains: ‘CBS has provided an insight into past trends and developments, and has clearly highlighted how these relate to one another. That is very useful. The next question is how the Ministry can use these insights in its future policy. For example, how can we apply them in discussions on the possible location of wind farms and their potential impact. In other words, what value can natural capital accounting add to the standard economic analyses that we normally use to support our policies? This is what the Ministry is going to look at.’

Bringing two worlds together

Bogaart has one final point to make: ‘We have achieved something very important in bringing together these two worlds – economics and ecology. In this case, the goal was to publish a report looking at the present and the recent past. But the government can use the same methodology to look towards the future, plan new developments or assess whether particular policies will have the desired effect.’

The report was published in December 2023 and is entitled: ‘SEEA Ocean Ecosystem Accounting for the Dutch North Sea: toward a first full implementation’.