1. Introduction to Ocean Accounts

Table of Contents

1.1 What are Ocean Accounts?

  • An Ocean Account is a structured compilation—of consistent and comparable information: maps, data, statistics and indicators—concerning marine and coastal environments, including related social circumstances and economic activity. The general purpose of such accounts is to inform and enable public policy decision-making about oceans, and related analysis and research. The function of these accounts is to provide coherent structures for standardizing often-fragmented data to produce reliable integrated indicators of interest to policy. Dissemination of these indicators can be accomplished through national reports, nationally managed websites, or interactive “dashboards” which allow user querying. Ocean Accounts are distinguishable from other compilations of ocean-related information on the basis that they are:

  • Ocean Accounts are designed to support coherent and holistic reporting and assessment of the wide range of social, economic, and environmental conditions related to oceans. This broad perspective is intended to be consistent with the practical information requirements of decision-making to achieve sustainable development — which is defined for the present purposes in general terms as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

  • The Ocean Accounts Framework is distinct from related initiatives, largely due to its comprehensive scope and statistical foundations. It can bring coherence, an environmental perspective, and a policy context to the many interpretations of the “ocean economy” and “blue economy” that centres on sustainability and inclusivity. It can provide a coherent, agreed information base for strategic and spatial planning of the ocean and coasts, regulation of ocean-based economic activities and sectors, adaptive management to keep pace with policy cycles, and associated investment decisions. It can also provide impartial evidence to monitor and evaluate ocean-related policies and be used to develop a statistical foundation for monitoring of progress towards international commitments such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Convention on Biological Diversity, and 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development including the SDGs. Further, it can be used to identify gaps in our knowledge and help focus research on filling those gaps.

1.2 Overview of the Ocean Accounts Framework

  • Ocean Accounts are fundamentally a collection of accounts (or modules) that are organised in terms of a conceptual framework. These accounts may be implemented selectively depending on national priorities, data availability and technical capacity. Overall, the framework describes:

    • interactions between the economy and the environment,

    • the stocks (flows) and changes in stocks of environmental assets (natural capital) that provide benefits to people, and

    • social and governance factors affecting and affected by the status and condition of environmental assets and associated benefits.

  • The general structure and groups of component tables of the Ocean Accounts Framework are illustrated in Figure 1 below, and can be summarised as follows:

  • Ocean assets (natural capital): recording the physical status and condition, and monetary value, of marine and coastal environmental assets (natural capital) including minerals and energy, land and soil, coastal timber, aquatic resources, other biological resources, water, and ecosystems including biodiversity.

  • Flows to economy (supply and use of ocean services, including goods[1]): recording inputs from marine and coastal environmental assets to the economy, including ocean-related materials (abiotic and biotic), energy, water, and ecosystem services. These inputs can be recorded in terms of physical quantities and monetary value.

  • Flows to environment (residuals including ecosystem impacts): recording in physical units the outputs from the economy to the ocean environment including: solid waste, air emissions, water emissions, and impacts on ecosystems.

    • The ocean economy as a contribution to the national economy: recording the monetary value of production, consumption, accumulation, imports, and exports in economic sectors deemed relevant to the ocean, as well as non-market services in comparison to the economy of a nation. The economy is reflected in the Ocean Accounts as users of ocean services and suppliers of residuals (pollutants) and activities that affect the ocean.

    • Governance: recording a range of information (physical status, monetary value, and/or qualitative status) concerning collective decision-making about oceans, and the wider social and governance context in which such decisions are made. Information recorded in governance tables includes the status and/or value of: protection and management of ocean environment; the “environmental” goods and services sector of the ocean economy; relevant taxes and subsidies; applicable laws and regulations; health, poverty and social inclusion; risk and resilience; and ocean-related technologies. Inclusion of health, poverty, and risk management may require a separately identified social account to address inclusivity within the overall account framework.

    • Combined presentation: recording a “report card” of summary information (physical quantities, monetary value, and/or qualitative status) and indicators concerning the flows of benefits and costs (the latter broadly defined as maintenance and restorations costs, disservices and externalities[2]) between the ocean environment and the economy. This information includes but is not limited to: the share of Gross Value Added / Gross Domestic Product attributable to the ocean economy; ocean resource rents; depletion, degradation and adjusted net savings relevant to oceans; contributions of oceans to human well-being (employment, sense of place) that are not recorded in the SNA; and relevant information concerning health, poverty and social inclusion.

    • National Wealth: recording summary information (in terms of physical quantities, and/or monetary value) concerning a country’s (or other region’s) stock of ocean wealth, including relevant stocks of environmental assets recorded on a SEEA balance sheet; economic/financial assets recorded on an SNA balance sheet; a subset of environmental assets that are defined as “critical” according to agreed criteria; the resource life of environmental assets; and relevant societal assets such as education and health systems.

[1] Ecosystem services, in the past were referred to as “ecosystem goods and services”. For simplicity, the term has been shortened and this convention is maintained in this Guidance. That is “Ocean services” includes “goods”.

[2] These costs are included in the framework in theory, but not dealt with in detail in the current Guidance pending further discussion.


  • When compiled on a regular basis, the information recorded in these tables can support a wide variety of decision-making processes in relation to commitment to international imperatives, for example:

  • Strategic development planning: including formulation of strategies and objectives for sustainable development of the “ocean” or “blue” economy, informed by a holistic accounting of ocean wealth, and associated flows of benefits in relevant sectors.

    • Management of ocean space: including the designation and monitoring of protected areas, marine spatial planning (MSP) and integrated coastal zone management (ICZM)[3], and regulatory approvals and conditions for ocean activities and infrastructure, informed by a broad understanding of the current and past extent, condition and value of ocean assets (including ecosystems) and flows of benefits associated with those assets. This will better identify and prioritize marine ecosystems in need of new or continued protection to achieve restoration/recovery and help balance between the equilibrium of an economic and conservation benefit.

    • Finance and investment: including the design and allocation of taxes, subsidies and public investment related to oceans, for specific economic sectors, social groups or locations, informed by integrated accounting of previous financial flows and the associated changes in social, environmental or economic conditions.

    • Ocean analysis, monitoring and assessment: including impact assessment, strategic impact assessment, and benefit-cost analysis informed and contextualised by the time series of integrated social, economic and environmental information recorded in Ocean Accounts. 

[3]Marine spatial planning (MSP) and Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) aim to coordinate and balance the needs of several types of activity within the same area. These are distinct from other approaches that focus on managing specific sectors or specific areas. (UN Environment, 2018)

Figure 1. General structure of the Ocean Accounts Framework

  • The Ocean Accounts Framework directly incorporates present efforts to advance standard classifications of ecosystems and services which are consistent with the following international frameworks and standards concerning data and statistics:

  • System of National Accounts (SNA) is the international statistical standard that countries use to measure the economy. It produces a well-understood set of macro-economic indicators, including Gross Domestic Product.[1]

    • The SEEA Central Framework (SEEA-CF)⁠ is consistent with and enlarges the scope of the SNA. It measures the contribution of nature to the economy by providing guidance on measuring the physical quantities and monetary values of natural assets (land, water, timber, minerals, energy) in the country, their flows into to the economy (supply), their use in the economy (use), residuals produced from their use and expenditures to mitigate impacts on the environment. The SEEA has been revised twice since its inception in 1992. Over 90 countries in the world have produced one or more SEEA accounts. The most common are water, energy and land.

    • SEEA Experimental Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA-EEA) adds to the SEEA-CF guidance on measuring ecosystems as integrated assets that provide benefits to people. It includes guidance on measuring ecosystem extent, their conditions and the services they provide to people. The SEEA-EEA brings coherence to various works on ecosystem services assessment by providing a standard classification of ecosystems and ecosystem services. It suggests a coherent approach to spatial units. It also provides guidance on monetary valuation of ecosystem assets and their services to ensure these measures are coherent with the SNA. The SEEA-EEA applies a broader scope of valuation than the SNA or SEEA-CF. While it provides guidance on measuring the direct contribution of ecosystems to the economy (SNA benefits), it also provides scope for measuring ecosystem services that contribute to long-term ecological integrity (regulation and maintenance services) and a broader set of societal values (cultural services). At least 30 countries have produced SEEA ecosystem accounts. Most begin with establishing agreed maps of ecosystem extent.

    • National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI)⁠: Much work on SEEA-CF Land and SEEA Ecosystem Accounts relies on integrating spatial data from multiple sources inside and outside governments. This has led to the general recommendation (United Nations, 2017) that countries establish and apply an NSDI that provides principles and processes for harmonising spatial data. In some countries, the NSDI also encompasses a Marine Spatial Data Infrastructure (MSDI). In others it is limited to terrestrial areas.

    • The Framework for the Development of Environment Statistics (FDES), provides guidance on a core set of environmental indicators that has proven beneficial to inform policy. It is designed to assist all countries in articulating environment statistics programmes by: (i) delineating the scope of environment statistics and identifying its constituents; (ii) contributing to the assessment of data requirements, sources, availability and gaps; (iii) guiding the development of multipurpose data collection processes and databases; and (iv) assisting in coordination and organisation across institutions. Many countries use the FDES to organize statistical publications and integrate themes of indicators, such as energy, into SEEA accounts.

  • The Ocean Accounts Framework is also intended to be complementary to the following international statistical frameworks and guidance:

    • The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction provides several disaster-related definitions, indicators, and priorities for action, and the Disaster-Related Statistical Framework (DRSF) (ESCAP, 2017) provides guidance on measuring disaster risk and impacts, as well as the basic range of disaster-related statistics.

    • COP 23 Ocean Pathway has recognized that the ocean is closely linked to climate change concerns. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides substantial guidance on the collection and organisation of greenhouse gas emission inventories from anthropogenic sources (IPCC, 2006). The UNECE CES Task Force (UN Economic Commission for Europe) on a set of key climate change-related statistics using the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting has developed a set of related key climate change-related statistics using the SEEA and other statistical frameworks. These indicators cover drivers of climate change, emissions, impacts, mitigation efforts and adaptation activities.

    • UNSD initiated a process to develop a Global Set of Climate Change Statistics and Indicators based on a systematic review of country-based practices and close link between global climate change negotiations and reporting on national statistics. At present, the availability of relevant statistics in most countries varies across the five areas: drivers, impacts, vulnerability, mitigation and adaptation

  • A comprehensive measurement framework for Ocean Accounts would evolve by connecting to and sharing standards with these existing frameworks. The current framework is a work in progress and the intent is to integrate data consistent with these frameworks, but wherever possible, in a spatially-detailed manner Knowing where assets are and where their condition is good or poor provides an important analytical basis to support planning and decisions on where best to protect, rehabilitate or sustainably exploit ocean resources. Opportunities for further integration and extension are discussed in the Appendix 6.8 (Additional Research Questions). For example, by coordinating the disaster risk and climate change communities of practice, implementation of the Ocean Accounts would ensure that similar data are collected only once and shared across these communities. These data include but are not limited to: identifying coastal communities and infrastructure at risk, delineating coastal and marine ecosystems, assessing and valuing economic and ecological losses, tracking ocean conditions and identifying priority mitigation measures.

  • For the purposes of this document the term “Ocean” refers to a space that includes “coastal” and “open ocean (pelagic)” areas combined.

1.3 Scientific foundation of Ocean Accounts

  • Oceans cover 71% or 361 million square kilometres of the Earth’s surface. The average depth of the 20% that has been mapped is about 3.8 kilometres. Maximum depths can exceed 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) in ocean trenches. We know little about what exists on the seafloor, since less that 0.001 percent has been biologically or geologically sampled. The oceans contain 97% of our planet's available water.

  • The vastness of the ocean, both in surface area and in depth, and the extent of its unexplored areas, make it distinct from better-known terrestrial and freshwater systems. It embodies cycles and systems that are sometimes separate from and sometimes intimately linked to those on land, freshwater and the atmosphere. To explain the concepts used in the Ocean Accounts, this section reviews the basics of what is known about the ocean, initiatives to measure and it and what remains to be understood.

  • In terms of the SEEA, there are many nuances that are explained in this section. Ocean assets, whether aquatic resources (SEEA-CF) or ecosystems (SEEA-EEA) may move in space over time and exist in three dimensions. The services they supply and the beneficiaries that use them are therefore also multi-layered and dynamic. The health of ocean ecosystems is influenced by land-based sources (e.g., runoff from agriculture), marine sources (e.g., fuel spills from marine ships), as well as atmospheric sources (e.g., carbon emissions). These impacts diffuse at different rates depending on currents, winds and tides. This dynamism increases the uncertainty of the already sparse data available. To collaborate with ocean scientists, non-scientists should be familiar with these general concepts.

1.3.1 General concepts

  • The Earth’s seas can be divided into five major oceans: Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic and Southern (Antarctic). The Southern Basin is defined based on the unique characteristics of the waters flowing around Antarctica. Each of these may be further divided into basins based on the presence of underwater rises. Basins vary in depth and in their level of geologic activity, as a result of the movement of the underlying tectonic plates. Ocean space is also divided into vertical layers, defined by the profile (depth and slope) of the floor and the amount of light that penetrates to that depth. Classification of ocean space therefore needs to consider not just by geographic boundaries, but also by oceanographic boundaries, such as definitive ocean currents, temperature of salinity gradients, or depth profiles defined by light regimes (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Nutrients fall to light-poor depths, runoff from land and are brought to the surface by currents.

  • Ocean bathymetry is varied, like terrestrial topography, and can be thought of as an extension of terrestrial and river systems. From the coastal plain to open ocean, the land generally descends underwater, first to the continental shelf, then to the continental slope, next to the continental rise, and finally to the relatively flat area of the ocean basin itself (also known as the abyssal plain). The continental shelf is the gently sloping area from the coast to the continental slope, which is a steep drop off (thousands of meters) to the continental rise and the abyssal plain beyond. The width of depth of the shelf, slope, rise, and abyssal plain varies depending on the ocean basin. Submarine canyons may cut into the continental shelf, adding additional physical and habitat complexity. The flat abyssal plain of the ocean basin may be broken up by trenches (deeper areas) and seamounts (underwater mountains).

  • Since ocean water absorbs light, different depths have different amounts of light reaching them. Sunlight penetrates more easily down to about 200 m in depth. This is called the epipelagic, euphotic, or sunlit zone. Between 200 m and 1 km, in the mesopelagic, disphotic, or twilight zone, there is a rapid decrease in sunlight penetration. Below 1 km is the bathypelagic, midnight, or aphotic zone, which receives no sunlight. This interaction of light and depth will impact the potential for photosynthesis and the biotic components (e.g., plankton, fish) that may exist.

  • Like sunlight, temperature also generally decreases with depth from the surface, but not at a constant rate. Temperatures in the sunlit zone, because of the action of the sun, wind, and waves will follow trends (with a lag) in the surface temperatures above. Below this sunlit zone the temperature drops off quickly; this thermocline is the temperature transition zone between the surface waters and the cooler bathypelagic waters, where temperatures are relatively constant. The thermocline and, therefore, temperature gradient, will vary depending on the season and the location in the global ocean system; for example, an arctic system may have little or no thermocline, with waters at surface and waters at depth at similar temperatures.

  • Surface and deep-water currents transfer heat, nutrients and biota around the ocean within complex ocean circulation patterns. These play a major role in influencing global climate and the latitudinal distribution of different ecosystems, including terrestrial ones.

  • While sunlight and temperature decrease with depth, pressure increases with depth with the weight of seawater pushing down from above. Pressures at depth can be hundreds of times the pressure at the surface. This consequently creates another constraint on biotic components of the system.

  • Evaluation of oceans cannot be done independently of consideration of the adjoining coastal areas and habitats. Coastal estuaries are important interfaces between terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems, supporting organisms such as mangroves, crabs, shellfish, seagrasses, and various fish species, that thrive in the changing tides and mix of freshwater and saltwater. Coral reef and lagoon complexes provide additional habitats and feeding grounds for many and varied marine species, ranging from the corals themselves to sharks to sea turtles to a diverse assemblage of fish species. Estuarine areas are also often densely populated by people given the historic and ongoing value of coastal location for food sources and trade. These concentrations of people have varied and complex relationships with the coastal area as well as the more remote marine areas.

1.3.2 Components of the ocean environment

  • Ocean environments are composed of both abiotic (non-living) and biotic (living) components of coastal and marine environments. The interaction of these components plays an important role in determining the dynamics in an area of the ocean.

  • Abiotic components of the ocean environment include minerals and nutrients, water, sunlight, and gasses. More broadly, other physical features like waves, currents, temperature, and pressure may also be considered abiotic conditions. and are important in several economic activities such as the generation of renewable energy. The quantity and quality of abiotic factors can influence the biotic components through physical, chemical, and biological processes.

  • Biotic components of the ocean encompass the multitude of plants and animals, from microscopic plankton to megafauna whales, that interact with and utilize the abiotic components in different ways.

  • These components interact in systems (geo-physical, atmospheric, and ecological), which are key to understanding oceans for accounting for stocks and flows. These systems also interact with the human social and economic system.

1.3.3 Geo-physical and atmospheric systems

  • Understanding global ocean circulation patterns and the combination of surface and deep-water currents is essential to understanding ocean dynamics. Surface currents transfer heat from the equator to the poles. Deep water currents move dissolved gases and nutrients from the surface to deep waters. Currents support the food web by bringing nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorus) and food supply to locations that otherwise would be nutrient-limited. They also help move aquatic life around.

  • Surface circulation patterns, which generally move the top 100 meters or so of the ocean, are driven by winds, so they tend to follow the direction of trade winds until they intersect with a continent. An interesting feature of surface circulation patterns is that water in the western side of a current system (e.g., in the Gulf Stream) tend to move faster and are narrower than in the eastern side of currents.[4]

  • Thermohaline circulation, driven by temperature and salinity differences leading to higher density of surface waters at the poles, moves masses of water vertically and then horizontally at depth across the global ocean.[5] It takes about 500-1000 years for water to complete the movement in thermohaline circulation since it is much slower than surface currents. These currents pull oxygen, CO2, and nutrients down with them to be redistributed to deep waters and around the globe. When these currents encounter continental margins or (in a more localized manner) seamounts, this causes upwelling, which brings the deeper, colder, nutrient-rich water to the surface. Upwelling also arises from wind driven processes resulting in Ekman transport of deep waters to the surface. Nutrient-rich waters when upwelled into the photic zone allow for enhanced primary productivity leading to highly productive areas.For example, upwelling occurs on the western coast of South America, where this process supports important fishing areas.

  • Chemical cycles are also important for the marine environment, because of the transformation of compounds into forms that are available for uptake by phytoplankton (microscopic marine algae, the base of the food web). Nitrogen gas is fixed (converted to biologically useable form) by certain species of photosynthetic and non-photosynthetic bacteria. For example, the ammonium ion is a more accessible form of nutrient and is taken up by aquatic microbes, such as phytoplankton or microalgae. Nitrification also occurs to convert ammonium to nitrate, which is also one of the more common forms of nitrogen taken up by marine microbes. The organisms take up the nitrogen and it therefore becomes either particulate organic nitrogen (PON) or dissolved organic nitrogen (DON), which can then be re-mineralised back into ammonium.

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) is taken up by the oceans by diffusion or through the fixation of carbon by phytoplankton. The diffusion of CO2 into water has important impacts on ocean chemistry. After forming a weak acid with plentiful H20, this compound dissociates into carbonate, bicarbonate and hydrogen ions. The increase in hydrogen ions decrease the pH of the ocean and reduce the available supply of carbonate ions. Marine creatures, such as molluscs, corals, and crustaceans, make use of the calcium and carbonate ions to form shell structures.

[4] Below about 100 m, the water is denser and generally does not mix with the surface, other than by vertical circulation at the poles and upwelling areas. This barrier is called the pycnocline. Intermediate and deep currents are driven by this vertical circulation.

[5] In the Arctic and Antarctic, the colder waters sink and slowly flow back towards the equator, where mixing with warmer waters eventually enables the water to rise back to the surface.

1.3.4 Ecological systems

  • The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines an ecosystem as a dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit.[6] Ocean ecosystems and their conditions can be more complex and dynamic than terrestrial ones. There is no accepted standard classification of ocean ecosystems or agreed measures of their condition. Environmental asset accounts suggests starting points for measuring these and Earth Observation Data recommends a core set of ocean statistics that captures the complexity and dynamism of the ocean.

  • Organisms fulfil different roles within the ecological system. A useful way of grouping species is by trophic level, their position in the food web. At the base of the food web are the producers, the microscopic plants, or phytoplankton, seagrass, and algae that, like most plants, convert sunlight and CO2 into carbohydrates and oxygen by photosynthesis. The primary consumers, such as zooplankton and herbivorous forage fish, operate at the next level of the trophic structure. Forage fish, also known as prey fish, likewise provide a meal for higher-level predatory fish and birds, which eventually provide a meal, and energy, to top predators. The exact structure and number of levels will vary based on the location and the categorization approach used. Since energy is lost at each step in the trophic structure, there are fewer top predators than primary consumers and fewer primary consumers than producers. Bacteria and marine fungi engage in important functions, such as nutrient cycling and decomposition of organic matter. Marine food webs can be quite extensive and cover large distances. Great White Sharks are top predators and are known to travel over 4,000 km in an open ocean. Humpback whales make annual migrations of up to 6000 km between breeding and feeding grounds.

  • The type of life present in a given area of the ocean reflects the interaction of the ecological system with geophysical and atmospheric systems and constraints related to the penetration of light to ocean depths. Most of the ocean life with which we are familiar, as well as the important phytoplankton base of the food web, lives in the sunlit or epipelagic zone. The deeper waters of the twilight and midnight zones have less well-known species and develop adaptations to lower light levels and higher pressures. While many organisms are restricted to narrow depth ranges, others move within and between zones for both feeding and to escape from predation. When organisms in the upper zones die, their remains fall to deeper waters, where they provide nutrients to those living below.

  • Apart from light and its role in ecological systems, there are also clear impacts of the chemical and nutrient cycles noted above on the ecological system. CO2 that is fixed into carbon by phytoplankton enters the food web described above, where it also has the potential to support higher trophic level species. Increased nutrient availability through conversion into bioavailable forms and upwelling can fuel phytoplankton growth and support a spatially complex food-web system. Currents also distribute seeds, eggs, larvae, and adults throughout the ocean.

  • The interaction of the topography and oceanography with ecological systems can create local “hot spot” areas of high biodiversity. Seamounts, guyouts, and ridges in deep-sea environments and other upwelling areas along coasts, can provide a habitat for clustering of plants and animals (e.g., fish, mussels, corals, sponges). Their raised topography intersecting with ocean currents provides immobile organisms with a ready supply of passing food and nutrients.

1.3.5 Ocean, society, and economy

  • Coasts are home to a large proportion of the global population. Estimates suggest that 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 km of the coast and this number is expected to increase in the coming decades. This average hides differences in coastal population density across countries: by some estimates, coastal population densities are three times the world average (Small and Nicholls, 2003). This density brings advantages to coastal inhabitants including to access to coastal and marine resources, recreation, and transport, although there are but also disadvantages related to sea level rise risk, and exposure to coastal storms.

  • Major components of the ocean market economy include capture and recreational fisheries, aquaculture, use of waters for shipping/transport, offshore energy (both renewable and non-renewable), mineral extraction, coastal recreation and tourism, and coastal property. Offshore renewable energy development (e.g., wind farms) has gained increasing traction over recent years, as has exploitation of marine mineral and genetic resources. Coastal and marine tourism is projected to continue to increase over time, which will likely increase pressures (demand for land, water, and energy as well as impacts of pollutants and ecosystem damage) on ocean areas.

  • Coastal and marine environments also provide non-market benefits, such as the waste mediation, carbon sequestration, non-market recreation (such as the enjoyment of walking along the beach) and the knowledge that ocean ecosystems and their iconic species are healthy and conserved. These are rarely included in overall estimates of the ocean economy but should not be ignored. Incorporating these broader values is, however, one of the objectives of ecosystem accounting.

  • The concept of the Anthropocene, or the era of humans as the driving force of changes in our planet’s climate and environment, requires a consideration of socio-ecological systems and their feedback loops. The ocean environment is not immune to the significant role of the human population in modifying its structure and function. Unsustainable extraction (including IUU fishing), increasing pollution, habitat destruction and anthropogenic stressors (e.g., eutrophication, warming, and acidification) are examples of the human-induced alterations of the ocean systems. An accounting structure will assist in tracking changes resulting from these pressures and making appropriate plans to manage them.

1.3.6 Initiatives to measure and assess the ocean

  • Humans have studied the ocean realm for centuries. Recent advances in ocean research technologies have centred on Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and are changing how ocean science collects and analyses data. Improvements in scientific research methodologies are being unlocked through new ocean robotics, remote sensing, big data, analytics and modelling, automated image analysis, genomics, machine learning and automated analytic technologies.

  • Given the multiple interacting systems of the ocean and its complex interconnections, integrated assessment has gained increasing traction over the past several decades. These assessments generally gather information on a set of indicators (of both the natural and human systems), their real and/or projected changes, and may also include an evaluation of the drivers of changes of the indicators (using a DPSIR framework). Below are some examples of assessment approaches that included the ocean system.

  • In the early 2000s, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment convened experts from around the globe to evaluate the status and trends of ecosystems, including coastal and marine, and the implications for human well-being. Findings from the synthesis report included: rapid and extensive change of ecosystems by people; substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth; substantial net gains in human well-being and economic development, but at the growing cost through degradation of many ecosystem services; and increased risk of non-linear changes, and the exacerbation of poverty for some groups of people. These problems, unless addressed, will substantially diminish the benefits that future generations obtain from ecosystems—especially coastal and marine ecosystems.

  • The UN convened a group of experts to conduct the first World Ocean Assessment; the final report was released in 2015. Key findings from the assessment include the substantial threat from climate change for oceans (e.g., increased deoxygenation, increased acidification), the determination that the exploitation of living marine resources is not sustainable in many locations, and increasing pressures on biodiversity, particularly in places where biodiversity hot spots and humans intersect. The report also found that there is increasing demand and potential conflict in the use of ocean space and that the increasing population and use of agriculture is increasing the waste flows into the coastal and ocean environment. The report (Chapter 9) highlighted the potential of the SEEA to harmonize data and to link ocean science to economic decision making.

  • In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published an assessment[7] of the status of global biodiversity and ecosystem services. Their key findings indicated that direct exploitation, mainly through fishing, had the largest relative impact on nature in marine systems and that climate change is “exacerbating the impact of other drivers on nature and well-being”. They also highlighted the intersection of loss of nature and its benefits with the incidence of poverty. The International Oceanographic Commission of the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (IOC-UNESCO) coordinates programmes in ocean-related research, services, and capacity building. This role includes coordinating the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). Among its programmes are the coordination of the Global Ocean Observation System (GOOS) and several other scientific workstreams including blue carbon, acidification, the effects of climate change and deoxygenation. Data and information are facilitated though two specialized bodies: The Joint WMO-IOC Technical Commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology (JCOMM; currently in the process of update for UN decade needs) and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange (IODE). Of particular interest to ocean accounting, IODE maintains several relevant databases and other tools including: the World Ocean Database (WOD), the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS), the Ocean Data Information System (ODIS) as well as an inventory of ocean experts and publications. The General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) operates under joint supervision of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) and IOC-UNESCO. GEBCO conducts several mapping projects regionally and globally, including Seabed 2030, a joint operation with the Nippon Foundation to map 100% of the ocean floor by 2030.

  • Many localized integrated ecosystem assessments have also been conducted, such as those conducted by NOAA on the California Current system, the Gulf of Mexico, the Northeast Shelf, and the Alaska Complex, by UN Environment for the Mediterranean, Canada for its marine coasts and Australia for the Great Barrier Reef. A common thread among these assessments is that the rate of change is increasing, and that research is required to fill data and knowledge gaps.

  • The above synopsis identifies that the ocean is changing, human use of the ocean is changing and the way we measure the ocean is changing. Tracking these changes and linking them to societal value systems provides an important understanding if of the impacts of these changes on ocean assets and the resultant flows of goods and services from such assets. There are a number of different ocean “health” indices by which the condition of systems can be assessed, including for example the Ocean Health Index, and the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. These along with NOAA - developed indicators targeted aimed at tracking of ocean asset changes can assist in informing important condition indicators for ocean asset accounts.

  • Looking to the future, the IPCC recently released an assessment of the “Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate,” which used new data to demonstrate the acceleration of ocean warming, sea level rise and acidification and likely future scenarios.

  • More broadly, TEEB’s (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) planned initiative for Oceans and Coasts “will seek to draw attention to the economic benefits of ocean and coastal biodiversity and healthy ecosystems and emphasize the unrealized benefits of preserved and enhanced whole ecosystem structures, functions and processes to the well-being of humans and nature”.

  • Australia’s Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program funded by the Australian Government for over 50 million to combine novel approaches in environmental engineering and social and environmental economics to combat climate change on the Great Barrier Reef. This is the first large-scale government-funded interdisciplinary project to simultaneously conduct socio-economic and scientific research on the same ecosystem over adequate spatio-temporal scales to monitor and react to the effects of climate change.

1.3.7 Key scientific challenges

  • The ocean’s vastness in surface area and depth, coupled with the multiple dynamic interactions discussed above, makes it a challenge for advancing scientific understanding. There are several ways we can make progress in advancing our understanding of the ocean system. There are few global data sets that extend below the ocean’s surface, although the ARGO program and its recent extension to include measurement of phytoplankton is gradually changing this. Additionally, There is growing global coordination to consistently measure coastal habitats including mangroves, seagrass, macroalgae, and coral reefs as Essential Ocean Variables under GOOS and essential to many ecosystem services, including blue carbon, however, there is relatively limited data on how changes in ecosystem extent and condition measures (e.g., area of mangrove habitat, water temperature) will lead to changes in biomass of more mobile aquatic organisms.

  • Key to better scientific understanding of the ocean will be addressing data gaps. While there are global data sets that can provide information on certain indicators like temperature and chlorophyll a concentrations, less data are available at smaller scales, and there are few global data sets that extend below the ocean’s surface. Fisheries data are available on a global level for certain commercial species, but these data are not tracked in a consistent manner and data on species interactions remain limited. There is also relatively limited data on how changes in ecosystem extent and condition measures (e.g., area of mangrove habitat, water temperature) will lead to changes in biomass of aquatic organisms. These latter relationships would be important for understanding how identified trends in accounting system components may be used to project potential future changes in the ocean system.

  • Data and knowledge gaps also limit the application of social sciences, including economics, to managing our collective impacts on the ocean. For example, studies are only recently emerging on the links between ecosystem services and the well-being of diverse beneficiaries (for example, Horcea-Milcu et al., 2016; See Health, poverty and social inclusion). The SEEA Ecosystems revision process has initiated the development of new approaches to measuring asset values that include ocean ecosystems. These approaches will be included in subsequent revisions of this technical guidance. Conducting Ocean Economy Satellite Accounting (OESA) is dependent on the level of detail available in a country’s SNA. Countries with the greatest dependence on ocean assets have the least detailed SNA.

  • Since the oceans involve an interaction of geo-physical, ecological, and human systems, there is an ongoing and pressing need for connecting knowledge across disciplines, particularly by developing a common accounting framework. While the accounting system alone will not provide the answers to research questions (i.e., analysis will be needed), a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach assures that an appropriate and inclusive set of metrics or indicators are being tracked consistently and coherently. Present examples include the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration which aims to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of all ecosystems, terrestrial, aquatic, and marine and depends heavily on interdisciplinary collaboration and testing of globally used restoration practices.

  • The complexity of the interacting systems (and their associated indicators) in the ocean environment creates substantial challenges in dealing with uncertainty, interpreting unexpected trends and relationships, and developing future projections. Advances in coupled ecologic-economic modelling, particularly in fisheries and climate research, will provide guidance in evaluating best practices for modelling data and for dealing with the cumulative effects of uncertainties generated within individual modelled systems. It is hoped that the scientific community will contribute to the development and application of these Ocean Accounts by advising on appropriate classifications and condition indicators, by helping to understand the role of ecosystem processes in providing services and by interpreting the results of the accounts.

  • An additional challenge is to collect the required data with limited financial resources. Global efforts are underway (see Data sources and platforms for Ocean Accounts) to maximize the effectiveness of ocean observing systems for collection of relevant and consistent data sets. Improved technologies that enhance the capabilities of tracking vessels and migratory species may also prove beneficial. ESCAP is addressing the needs for global data selection and integration using the framework by producing an inventory of global data and proposing a global map of ocean ecosystems, consistent with this framework.

  • For many ecosystem types, particularly in the marine environment, there is a lack of consensus in the scientific community on specific environmental indicators which accurately identify ecosystem health and function through time. While efforts to develop indicators of ecosystem health are a focus of research across all marine ecosystem types, progress varies between ecosystems types. Furthermore, the informative power of available metrics will have to be balanced with the feasibility of use, which includes intellectual barriers and the cost of collecting the data at a satisfactory frequency.

  • The need for improved reporting systems and visualization tools for the dissemination of ocean accounts data to the public and policy makers. These will increase the ability of crosstalk between independent governmental agencies which are stakeholders in the overall account building process. These are discussed as “dashboarding” in Scope boundaries of Ocean Accounts.

1.4 Statistical foundation of Ocean Accounts

1.4.1 An accounting perspective

  • We all encounter the basic principles of accounting in our daily lives. Our bank accounts record the opening balance at the beginning of the month, withdrawals and deposits over the month and the ending balance. The opening balance is our “financial asset”, withdrawals and deposits are reductions and additions to those assets. If withdrawals and deposits are in foreign currencies, these are first converted to a common currency. If the opening balance, minus withdrawals, plus deposits does not add up to the closing balance, then some item has been mis-recorded or mis-calculated. Our financial books should balance, as should our accounts for natural capital.

  • Withdrawals for our monthly mortgage payments is an investment in our “produced assets”, which is recorded in a separate account. If our houses are not well-maintained, their value may decrease. The value of our cars depreciates over time. Both may have substantial liabilities in terms of maintenance or repair costs. Our “net worth” is the sum of all our assets and liabilities. Regularly reviewing our accounts tells us if our net worth is increasing or decreasing.

1.4.2 Accounting for the economy and the environment

  • Environmental economic accounting balances nature’s books. The term “accounting” is broader than simply financial accounting; stocks and flows of environmental assets are also accounted for in physical terms. An “account” is a summary table of either environmental assets (opening stock, additions, reductions, closing stock) or their flows into, within or out of the economy (supply, use of natural inputs and residuals, the left-overs: pollutants and wastes).

  • To manage our impacts on environmental assets so that they provide benefits into the future, we need to measure the locations and quantities of those assets, their additions and reductions, their conditions, their benefits to people and what people are doing to improve or degrade them. Accounting principles highlight the need to account for all assets and all flows. They also require us to convert to standard units, apply standard concepts, such as pricing, and work within specified accounting periods.

  • The environment is an asset that contributes directly to economic production, but more so to other important aspects of life on earth. Fish are important economically, but also socially in terms of nutrition and culture, and environmentally as part of the complex ecosystem. The amount of fish harvested may be more than the capacity of the stock to reproduce, thereby depleting the asset. Pollution and other human activities may also degrade the fish’s habitats, further reducing their capacity to provide economic and social benefits. Similarly, the pollution may decrease the ocean’s economic value but will also harm the quality of life of life of affected people and the capacity for ecosystems to function.

1.4.3 Building on existing frameworks and standards

  • Data on environmental assets and their benefits to people come from many sources and are collected using different definitions and classifications. Measurement frameworks help to standardize these data across sectors, disciplines, and countries. Fortunately, we have existing statistical frameworks that we can build on to help standardize data for the ocean.

  • The SNA records revenues from extracting, harvesting, and capturing natural resources (mining, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, water supply, energy supply) in monetary terms. These natural inputs to the economy are, in turn, sold to and used by other economic sectors. To do this, the SNA is based on clear classifications of institutional sectors (industries) and institutional units (businesses, governments, households) and clear definitions and measures of revenues, costs, prices, imports, and exports. GDP, the measure of economic production by resident institutions, is one headline indicator that the SNA produces. Another is balance of trade, the difference between a country’s imports and its exports. The SNA can also be used to track assets, but normally focuses on assets with economic value: fixed capital (buildings, equipment, and infrastructure) and financial capital as part of the National Balance Sheet.

  • The SEEA-CF records environmental assets and the flows of natural inputs, products, and residuals in physical and monetary terms, applying the same concepts, definitions and classifications as the SNA.

  • SEEA-EEA builds on the principles of the SNA and SEEA-CF to better measure ecosystems as integrated assets, their condition, and the services they provide to people. Viewing ecosystems as “integrated assets” recognizes that the ocean is more than a source of fish; it is also important for coastal protection, carbon sequestration, climate regulation and recreation, among others.

1.4.4 Integrated physical and monetary accounting

  • Recording the stocks of environmental assets in physical terms can support the measurement of the economic value of those stocks. The SEEA, unlike the SNA, “includes all natural resources and areas of land of an economic territory that may provide resources and space for use in economic activity” (SEEA-CF para 1.48). SEEA-CF asset accounts record the opening balance, additions, and reductions, and closing balance. These principles can be applied to mineral and energy resources, land, soil, timber resources, aquatic resources, other biological resources (crops and livestock) and water.[7]

  • Flows of these environmental assets to the economy are recorded as supply and use tables. Supply tables in physical terms, recording the quantities extracted, harvested, or captured and which institutional unit (including imports) supplies that natural input. This can be linked back to the asset accounts as reductions or additions. Use tables, in physical terms, record the flows of products within the economy and which economic unit (including exports) uses that natural input.

  • Supply and use tables in monetary terms can be compared with the values of transactions recorded in the SNA. Asset accounts can tell us whether and why the asset is increasing or declining. They can also tell us something about how long that asset is expected to last, given the anticipated supply (from the supply tables). Comparing physical and monetary tables can reveal inconsistencies in the accounts. For example, the SNA may undercount the contributions of small-scale fishers or household production because of under-reporting. From the asset accounts, we may see a reduction in stock that is not reflected in the monetary supply tables. This may be a sign of unreported or illegal activity

  • The SNA and SEEA-CF accounts are generally produced for administrative areas; that is, for a country or state, without further spatial detail. There is also no recording of the condition (quality) of the asset or product. For example, water supply and use accounts generally record the total quantity of water supplied to the country in cubic metres, without regard for the quality of the water supplied.

  • However, the location and condition of an ecosystem affects its capacity to provide services, the potential for people to benefit from it and the impact of people on it. Therefore, ecosystem accounts are based on spatially detailed data, including data on the condition of those ecosystems and the location from which services are provided.

1.4.5 Ecosystem accounting

  • To compile, integrate and analyse spatial data from several domains, SEEA-EEA introduces a spatial framework based on a hierarchy of spatial statistical units and an ecosystem classification (see Spatial data infrastructure for Ocean Accounts). Together, these form the basis of the Ecosystem Extent Account, which maps ecosystems of different types (forest, grassland, mangrove, etc.). Ecosystem Condition Accounts and Services Supply Accounts apply the same spatial framework facilitating the overlaying of data from these accounts.

  • Ecosystem Condition Accounts compile quality measures with respect to a reference condition. Identified variables, which are suited to represent the condition of a specific ecosystem type are converted into indicators by comparison with a standard, such as the species diversity of the same area in the past.

  • Ecosystem services are “contributions that ecosystems make to benefits used in economic and other human activity” (United Nations, 2017. p68). There is no international standard classification of ecosystem services. However, the SEEA Ecosystems revision process is developing a list of common, widely available ecosystem services. See Classification of ocean ecosystem services.

  • Ecosystem Services Supply Accounts record the provision of ecosystem services by different ecosystem types. These may be aggregated from small spatial units or disaggregated from national statistics. For example, the provision of “fish” by “estuaries” versus “pelagic areas” could be summed up from plot-level data or national fishery production statistics could be attributed to all ocean areas designated for fishing.

  • Ecosystem Services Use Accounts record the use of ecosystem services by beneficiary economic units: households, businesses, and governments. Experience in disaggregating beneficiaries spatially and by sub-populations (such as high/low income) using the SEEA-EEA is limited. It is intended that the implementation of Ocean Accounts in national pilots will help develop common approaches to accomplishing this.

  • The SEEA-EEA emphasizes that ecosystems can have values beyond their contribution to short-term economic production. These are reflected in the classification of ecosystem services, which contains services such as “flood control” and “characteristics of living systems that enable aesthetic experiences”. Since there is limited potential to market such services, they are generally measured only in physical terms. The SEEA-EEA suggests monetary valuation be done in a way that is consistent with the SNA. That is, exchange values are “those values that reflect the price at which ecosystem services and ecosystem assets would be exchanged between buyer and seller if a market existed” (United Nations, 2017. p97). However, recent discussions on the SEEA Ecosystems revision suggest that future versions will include guidance on appropriate methods for measuring and applying non-market or welfare values.

1.4.6 Extensions for ocean accounting

  • The Ocean Accounts Framework adapts and extends the concepts of the SNA, SEA-CF, and SEEA-EEA to apply better to the ocean. It includes additional guidance on:

    • Measuring or qualitatively describing components of the ocean economy and governance that are not addressed in the SNA or SEEA;

    • ocean spatial units and ocean ecosystems types, while maintaining consistency with SEEA-CF Land Accounts, and SEEA-EEA Ecosystem Extent for terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems;

    • spatially detailed physical supply and use of ocean-related natural inputs from the SEEA-CF (such as energy, metals and minerals, aquatic resources);

    • spatially detailed information on sources of residuals from the SEEA-CF, especially land-based water emissions and solid wastes,

    • spatially disaggregated information on expenditures on environmental protection from the SEEA-CF, and

    • further disaggregation of beneficiaries of ecosystem services from the SEEA-EEA, by type and location. It is important to recognize such disaggregation must carry a metadata flag to ensure the resultant disaggregated data are used in the correct manner.

1.5 Practical relevance and utility of Ocean Accounts

  • Ocean Accounts are designed to be relevant to and practically useful for the development of ocean sciences,[8] national statistical systems, and evidence-based governance of oceans. The rationale for their use in these three contexts can be summarised as follows.

1.5.1 The scientific rationale for Ocean Accounts

  • Modern ocean science is characterised by increasing reliance on complex and large-scale data inputs, and by a proliferation of distinct expert communities operating within and between the broad domains of physical, biological, and social research. In this context, the Ocean Accounts Framework can provide a useful means to:

    • Integrate data and statistics across disciplines—it provides a conceptual structure for the integration and/or coherent presentation of data and statistics concerning marine and coastal environments, social circumstances, and economic activity. Creation of such structure could also serve to drive improved standards and consistency for the collection and communication of primary data.

    • Provide a more holistic understanding of complex systems—The integrated and coherent nature of information within the framework provides a foundation for holistic analysis of complex and interlinked social, environmental, and economic phenomena and trends.

    • Communicate science to decision-makers—As noted previously, Ocean Accounts are specifically intended to inform and enable public policy decision-making about oceans, and related analysis and research. They present multiple outputs of ocean-related scientific research within an overarching structure that is compatible with existing national accounting processes and standards. This supports (1) communication with a wider range of decision-makers (for example macro-economic decision-makers who do not typically engage directly with environmental science), and (2) the public legitimacy of scientific information by subjecting it to the rigour of national statistical processes and accounting principles.

1.5.2 The statistical rationale for Ocean Accounts

  • Environmental-economic accounting has been conducted in over 90 countries over the past 35 years. At least 60 countries regularly produce one or more SEEA account. These have focused on accounts seen as more technically feasible or immediately policy relevant: water, land, energy, and waste. Ecosystem accounting is relatively recent, so fewer countries have attempted them. The estimated 29 countries that have produced ecosystem accounts have generally focused on terrestrial and freshwater areas. The open ocean as a land cover type was not included in the SEEA-CF and had only been added to SEEA-EEA in the Technical Recommendations issued in 2017. However, the SEEA-EEA’s research agenda did include developing guidance for marine ecosystems.

  • The focus on terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems may have also been for technical feasibility and policy priority reasons. There had been little experience in broadly measuring the ocean, and its importance to life on earth is still not well understood. However, with the advent of SDG14, the need to measure the condition of the ocean and its importance to people became a priority for official statisticians. Some countries had already been extending the concepts of the SEEA-CF and SEEA-EEA to the ocean. In the absence of statistical guidance, they applied different approaches and made different assumptions.[9] While these constituted valuable experimental experiences, none were sufficiently broad to encompass all the concerns expressed in SDG14 and other ocean-related public policy objectives.

  • Ocean accounts are a multidisciplinary framework. The success of its implementation and eventual use rests on involvement and collaboration of stakeholders with diverse yet complementary knowledge and expertise from statistical, scientific and policy domains. At the national level, collaboration across different government agencies including but not limited to statistics, environment, marine and coastal resources, science, and finance and planning is vital. Ensuring this collaboration requires statistical approaches to ensure standardized formatting and processing of the these interdisciplinary data.

  • Ocean Accounts are specifically intended to inform and enable public policy decision-making about oceans, and related analysis and research. They present multiple outputs of ocean-related scientific research within an overarching structure that is compatible with existing national accounting processes and standards. Using statistical approaches to combine this information supports (1) communication with a wider range of decision-makers (for example macro-economic decision-makers who do not typically engage directly with environmental science), and (2) the public legitimacy of scientific information by subjecting it to the rigour of national statistical processes and accounting principles.

1.5.3 The governance rationale for Ocean Accounts

  • At local, national, and international scales, oceans governance processes are increasingly expected to deliver a wide and balanced range of social, economic and environmental objectives. At the international level, all countries have committed since 2015 to achieving the 17 Goals and 169 Targets recognised in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Targets relate to diverse challenges in particular: poverty; hunger; health and well-being; quality education; gender equality; clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; decent work and economic growth; industry, innovation and infrastructure; inequality; sustainable cities and communities; responsible consumption and production; climate action; life below water; life of land; peace, justice and strong communities; and partnerships for sustainable development. SDG 14 establishes a commitment to “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”, accompanied by 10 Targets.[10]

  • At national and local levels, a growing number of countries have established policies and programmes designed to accelerate social and economic development and protection of their coastal and marine environments. Most coastal and island nations designate marine protected areas (MPAs) and many actively engage in marine spatial planning (MSP). Some of these characterise the environment as a critical economic asset, consistent with the explicit recognition in the Preamble of the 2030 Agenda that “social and economic development depends on the sustainable management of our planet’s natural resources.”

  • These governance objectives create demands for holistic and integrated analyses of ocean-based development, informed by holistic and integrated evidence including the evidence presented in Ocean Accounts. These demands are reinforced by a range of international political commitments to develop environmental valuation and accounting, including for oceans. For example, SDG 15.9 calls on all countries, by 2020, to “integrate ecosystem and biodiversity values into national and local planning, development processes, poverty reduction strategies and accounts.” SDG 17.19 calls on all countries, by 2030, to “build on existing initiatives to develop measurements of progress on sustainable development that complement gross domestic product and support statistical capacity-building in developing countries.”

  • An initial linkage between the Ocean Accounts Framework and SDG14 and other ocean-related targets and indicators presented in Appendix 6.5. The creation of Ocean Accounts is fundamental to these policy commitments because the accounts provide the essential information to establish baselines and monitor progress towards or away from policy goals relevant to the commitments made. Without creating and sustaining Ocean Accounts and the data and statistical systems needed to support them, it is difficult to know whether any of the policies are achieving their desired ends.

Global Ocean Accounts Partnership, 2019