Classification of Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital

Ecosystem services are broken down into a number of categories. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment listed four broad categories:

• Provisioning services are those that provide goods such as food and water;

• Regulating services are those that control various processes, such as flood control or suppression of disease outbreaks;

• Supporting services, such as nutrient recycling, maintain material and energy balances; and

• Cultural services are those that provide spiritual, moral, and aesthetic benefits.

To this, we may add other types of services, such as provision of habitat, or information flow (science and education).

Selective examples of ecosystem services from aquatic systems are given in Table 1. Some are obvious, such as the production of food and other exploitable products, or the provision of recreational opportunities. Some are less apparent, such as the storage and purification of water in aquifers, the ameliorating influence of large lakes on local climate, the role of the world's oceans in regulating global climate, or the assimilation of wastes by biogeochem-ical processing.

Another distinction that is often made is between 'ecosystem services' and 'natural capital.' Following economic terminology, capital is the standing stock of a good or information (represented by money); hence, natural capital is the standing stock of environmental goods. Natural capital generates flows of ecosystem services, either on their own or together

Table 1 Examples of aquatic ecosystem services and the underlying ecosystem processes, components, and functions that generate the services

Type of service


Ecosystem process and components

Specific service


Biogeochemical conversion

Energy and matter flow through food webs

Production offish, shellfish, algae, and other consumables


Genetic resources

Evolution and natural selection

Production of novel compounds used in medicine, industry, engineering, etc.



Habitat suitable for reproduction and early life stages

Promote survival and maintenance of species, e.g., estuarine-dependent fish species



Habitat necessary for some other life stage

Promote survival and maintenance of species

Habitat (ecosystem

Flood and erosion

Specific structures, e.g., mangrove swamps,

Mitigating the force of natural



salt marshes, and riparian vegetation that break the force of storm surges and floods



Nutrient cycling

Biotic and abiotic storage, transformation, and uptake of nutrients

Control of eutrophication; waste assimilation


Primary production

Transformation of solar energy into biochemical energy through photosynthesis

Provision of food and other products that are directly or indirectly consumed


Wetland soils formation

Production and partial decomposition of organic matter; mixing with inorganic sediment

Provision of peat or other fertile soils


Gas regulation

Biogeochemical processes involved in O2 and CO2 exchanges between air and water

Maintenance of gas balances in water and air


Water supply and regulation

Filtering, retention, and storage of fresh water

Provision of water for consumptive use


Trophic feed-back

Top-down predatory control in food webs;

Maintenance of low populations


trophic cascades

of nuisance algae; control of algally-derived turbidity


Climate regulation

Temperature regulation, hydrologic cycle, biotically mediated processes (e.g., production of dimethyl sulfide aerosols)

Maintenance of favorable climatic conditions for humans and their production systems


Aesthetics and art

Attractive features (lakes, rivers, marshes, shorelines)

Enjoyment of scenery, inspiration for art, music, and literature



Variety in land- and waterscapes that promote recreation

Enjoyment of scenery, activities, light exploitation



Whole or partial ecosystem functioning or features

Use of water or aquatic resources for religious purposes


Scientific knowledge

Whole or partial ecosystem functioning or

Use of aquatic systems in


features that promote inquiry and learning

research and education

Note that services are couched in anthropocentric terms.

Note that services are couched in anthropocentric terms.

with capital flows from other resources. An example of autonomous production of a service from natural capital might be the provisioning of protein from an animal community, such as oysters in an estuary. An example of natural capital flows combining from different systems might be the movement of detritus through a river ecosystem into a recipient estuary; the detritus is transformed on its journey and fuels different food webs, some of which may ultimately provide food or other services.

The concept of ecosystem services is inherently biased toward the anthropocentric perspective. The reason is twofold. First, a major point of discussing ecosystem services is to highlight their utility and essentiality for humans in an economic world, which increasingly marginalizes the value of undeveloped, natural ecosystems. Second, although ecosystems do not 'care' about whether Homo sapiens exists among all other species, we do, and thus we recognize that ecosystem goods and services are the natural components and processes that cannot be compromised, if our species is to persist. Moreover, functionality of ecosystem depends on access to these goods and services by nonhuman organisms as well. In contrast to the commonly held, layperson's view that the natural world is a subsystem of the human world, the concept of ecosystem services helps us to see how human societies are, in fact, embedded within the natural world.

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