gral forcing functions for freshwater systems, just as tides, hurricanes, and sealevel rise constantly revise the boundaries between land and water in coastal systems. For these reasons, and as stated in Chapter 1, “aquatic ecosystems” collectively refers to aquatic and related terrestrial ecosystems unless noted otherwise.
The conceptual challenges of valuing ecosystem services involve explicit description and adequate assessment of the link (i.e., the ecological production function) between the structure and function of natural systems and the goods or services derived by humanity (see Figure 1-3). Describing structure is a relatively straightforward process, even in highly diverse ecosystems. Exceptions sometimes arise at the levels of small invertebrates and microorganisms. However, function is often difficult to infer from observed structure in natural systems. Furthermore, the relationship between ecosystem structure and function as well as how these attributes respond to disturbance are not often well understood. Indeed, ecological investigations of aquatic systems show no signs of running out of questions about how these systems operate. Without comprehensive understanding of the behavior of aquatic systems, it is clearly difficult to describe thoroughly all of the services these systems provide society. Although valuing ecosystem services that are not completely understood is possible (see Chapters 4 and 5 for further information and examples), when valuation becomes an important input in environmental decision-making, there is the risk that the valuation may be incomplete.
There have only been a few attempts to develop explicit maps of the linkage between aquatic ecosystem structure/function and value. There are, however, a multitude of efforts to separately identify ecosystem functions, goods, services, values, and/or other elements in the linkage without developing a comprehensive argument. One consequence of this disconnect is a diverse literature that suffers somewhat from indistinct terminology, highly variable perspectives, and considerable divergent convictions. Despite these shortcomings, the core issue of how to assess and value aquatic ecosystem services is intuitive and important enough to support some synthesis—especially as related to environmental decision-making.
The goal of this chapter is to review and summarize some of the common elements in the published literature concerning the identification of aquatic ecosystem functions and their linkage to goods and services for subsequent economic valuation. It also includes a summary review of the extent and status of aquatic ecosystems in the United States and some of the issues that continue to complicate efforts to value aquatic ecosystem services. The chapter closes with a summary of its conclusions and recommendations.