UK coastal waters valued at £200bn by ONS

The economic value of the UK’s coastal waters has been put at more than £200bn amid growing recognition of the sea’s importance for renewable energy and as a barrier against global heating.

Richard Partington

In an official estimate for the value of marine natural assets, the Office for National Statistics said offshore wind production had soared in value by 37 times in the past decade.

Reflecting the growth of renewable electricity generation, the annual value of offshore wind energy generation increased to £296m in 2018, more than double the value in 2017, and 3,612% higher than in 2008.

Britain has become a world leader for wind power in recent years, with turbines on land and sea generating nearly a fifth of overall UK electricity, as the second-largest source behind gas. The UK recorded its greenest ever day for power generation over the Easter bank holiday, as a result of the windy and sunny weather, when 41% of electricity came from wind and 21% from solar farms.

However, official figures show the number of direct jobs supported by the offshore wind sector has only increased marginally in recent years despite the energy boom, growing by just 14% from 6,300 in 2014 to 7,200 in 2019.

The ONS said there were three main ways that the value of Britain’s marine ecosystems could be calculated: as a cultural and recreational asset; in the provision of natural resources; and as a regulator of environmental factors such as carbon emissions and water flows to prevent flooding.

Recreation had the highest value to the economy, worth an estimated £75bn. The study found more than 1 bn hours are spent on beaches and by the sea in Britain each year, representing a tenth of total hours spent on outdoor recreation with the coastal environment the key draw for millions of tourists and more than £1.7bn in consumer spending. It also said there was an average added-value of £8,100 for house prices with a sea view.

Highlighting the importance of aquatic habitats, sand dunes and salt marshes for capturing carbon – helping to limit global heating – the ONS estimated that between 10.5 and 60.1 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent are sequestered in UK waters, with a value of between £742m and £4.3bn.

However, it warned there was increasing pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater discharge, while the extent of natural salt marshes in the UK had also declined at a rate of 40 hectares a year for the last 50 years, damaging natural defences.

Estimating the contribution from fishing, the ONS said the value from the marine environment was about £7.5bn. It found that a total of 395 different species of fish were caught in UK waters, but that more than half the tonnage was made up of just two species: herring and mackerel. Overall, the report found a rise in sustainable fishing between 2015 and 2019.

However, the total net profit from catching fish in UK waters fell from a peak of £366m in 2017 to £284m in 2018, according to the latest available figures.