Enabling the public sector to save money, innovate and make more effective policy decisions by using space technology and data

Case Study: Plymouth Marine Laboratory – Earth observation: Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) monitoring, ecosystem capacity, natural capital valuation

General Information

  • Provider: Plymouth Marine Laboratory
  • Technology utilised: Earth observation (EO) – optical and radar
  • Thematic area: Environment
  • End user(s): Defra
  • Website: www.pml.ac.uk


  • 2016

This project was selected through an SSGP competition run using Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), supported by Innovate UK.

The aim of this project was to develop an innovative, interactive web-based visualisation tool that uses Earth observation data on phytoplankton, particularly ocean-colour data, to generate new products that serve and inform (i) statutory marine monitoring requirements, (ii) ecosystem service capacity assessments and (iii) natural capital capacity accounting.

The UK government is currently operating under a number of directives and national initiatives to ensure ecosystem-based stewardship of marine resources. Under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) (Directive 2008/56/EC), the UK has a legal obligation to reach good environmental status (GES) by 2020. Monitoring programmes have been established to measure progress towards GES but are often restricted in spatial coverage and frequency of sampling. Knowledge of the extent and state of the natural environment also provides an understanding of the sustainability of the ecosystem services it provides and which benefit people. The UK NEA report highlighted the need for whole ecosystems to be considered in decision making. Ecosystem services are currently measured in terms of the delivered service of an ecosystem which is often observable. However, what has not as yet been measured, is the capacity of an ecosystem to provide a service. Additionally, the UK government’s white paper on the natural environment, The Natural Choice, recognised the need to record the value of natural ecosystems and resources to ensure more informed sustainable growth strategies. Although progress is being made in assigning value to particular delivered ecosystem services, valuation of ecosystem service capacity is still in its infancy.

To demonstrate the ability of satellite data to inform each of these capabilities, a demonstrator visualisation tool was developed and is available on the web. The statutory monitoring capability used chlorophyll concentration in the water column to inform MSFD eutrophication indicator 5.2.1; the ecosystem services capability estimated potential carbon sequestration; and the natural capital valuation capability translated sequestered carbon services into a monetary value.

PML Carbon Sequestration Interpolated map

PML MSFO Eutrophication map

Teams within Defra spanning MSFD monitoring, ecosystem services and valuation were involved in the project to ensure the interactive tool was user-centred and added value to the operation of personnel.

Lessons Learned

The project has shown that satellite data can be used effectively for a number of requirements by central government. The novelty of the tool lies in its ability to convert large amounts of diverse geospatial Earth observation data into useful outputs that can be accessed with minimum effort and satisfy several user needs.

Costs and Benefits

The first phase of the project has invested just under £80k and allowed a demonstration of the visualisation tool to be developed. Further investment will be required to provide the full suite of phytoplankton-based MSFD indicators, their associated ecosystem services and relevant natural capital valuation.

The benefits of the interactive tool include: added value to the existing in situ programme by allowing greater spatial coverage to be obtained, provide additional time series data (from 2000), increased frequency of monitoring activities (days, months, years) and increased operational efficiency. The impact on the user organisations will stem from access to a superior quality and comprehensive data set monitored at high spatial resolution throughout the domain of responsibility. This will facilitate a better understanding of the sustainability of a natural system, reduce risk and enhance policy making in a timely manner.

Next Steps

Next steps for the project include expanding the range of phytoplankton-based MSFD indicators supported by the tool, estimation of associated ecosystem services and their natural capital valuation. It will be essential to continue to have the support of Defra and technical leads across capabilities to optimise its usefulness and uptake at the end of the second phase. Additional executive non-departmental public bodies will also be approached in the next phase to ensure that the tool is useful to their monitoring and assessment needs. Export of the tool internationally to other EU countries operating under the MSFD directive and wishing to monitor the state of their environments should be possible with minimal extra development. The tool could also be expanded for use by private companies to reduce costs and ensure optimal return for their efforts and investments, an aspect that will be explored in future iterations of the tool.