Understanding the effects of human domination on ecosystems requires an interdisciplinary framework. As such, ecosystems are increasingly viewed as social-ecological systems (SES); in this approach, human livelihood is often explicitly and tightly coupled to the structure and function of ecosystems. Furthermore, the explicit consideration of humans as a part of the ecosystem in SES frameworks allows for a direct and more complete investigation of biotic-abiotic system interactions. One SES of global importance is the marine coastal ecosystem. For example, through their structure and function, coastal marine ecosystems provide important ecosystem services that benefit humans including: 1) raw materials and food; 2) water purification; 3) erosion control; and 4) maintenance of fisheries. The aim of this study was to quantify the ecological energy flows in a coastal marine ecosystem food web model and the corresponding economic value of one of these ecosystem services through the creation of scenarios — the commercial value of three common bivalve species — provided by the biophysical ecosystem template.
Our ecosystem model showed that the high primary productivity of the Cobscook Bay estuary in Downeast Maine — fueled by turbulent currents bringing cold nutrient rich waters to the surface — supports a complex ecological food web. At current harvest rates, the food web supports over 10,000 t of various sustainable commercial fisheries including mussels, scallops, and soft shell clams. Through shellfish stock rebuilding, the estuary may sustainably support up to 450,000 t of commercially valuable shellfish, increasing direct economic effects by 5 times and increasing full time employment by 40 times. Our results of our integrated model study suggest that 1) there is untapped ecological potential to enhance ecosystem services through rebuilding fisheries, 2) there is economic stimulus potential for the economically distressed coastal towns in the Cobscook Region and throughout Washington county, and 3) using a complex SES framework may help to inform ecosystem based management practices. Through our integrated ecological and economic models and SES framework we highlighted the economic stimulus of ecosystem services — shellfish stock rebuilding through aquaculture or restoration — for an economically distressed coastal region.