From Ecology to Economics
If the goals of the Benedict project were only to improve scientific understanding of systems like the Patuxent River, they might be ambitious enough. And certainly, those are some of the major goals. "Five years from now," says Denise Breitburg, "we should have a much better understanding of how the cumulative impacts of nutrients, trace metals and low dissolved oxygen levels affect the [Patuxent] ecosystem." And we should also have a better understanding, she says, "of how much useful information you can get from simple versus complex experiments."
But NOAA's Coastal Ocean Program, which is supporting this project, is after much more, says Donald Scavia - in the long run, quantitative tools that resource managers can use to assess the potential effects of different management actions. More than that, he says, policy makers need to be able to assess the economic impacts of those actions - and this study, says Scavia, aims to do that as well.
From experiments on the response of phytoplankton to multiple stressors in one cubic meter mesocosms to predicting economic impacts of management actions for the Patuxent River - such is the breadth of the Benedict project. It is that ambitious uniqueness that excites Doug Lipton, a resource economist at the University of Maryland College Park and coordinator of the Sea Grant Extension Program.
One of those economic impacts is the effect of changing water quality conditions on the abundance of recreational fish and what those changes could mean for sports fishing.
Lipton is part of the research team that includes experts in field measurements and monitoring, ecological modeling, watershed studies, fisheries ecology and economics. These wide-ranging experts come from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the State University of New York-Buffalo, the University of Virginia, the University of Connecticut, the Maryland Department of the Environment, and SENES (Specialists in Energy, Nuclear and Environmental Sciences) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
If the project is successful, says Lipton, "for the first time we'll be able to say that reduction of nutrients has some predictable implications in economic terms." In this case, Lipton's aim will be to relate how different nutrient and toxic loads - under current, improved and worsened conditions - impact the availability of recreational fish. He will then be able to estimate the economic consequences of the changes in sport fishing that will result under those different conditions.
It is a long route to get from phytoplankton to striped bass. Can it be done? Scavia is not sure whether it will be possible to quantify and deal with cumulative stress over such scales. "But given the needs of better managing our coastal systems," he says, "we have to try some new scientific and economic approaches."
"At the very least," says Scavia, "we are seeding the future for what we will have to be able to do."