Ecosystem services in Puget Sound

Ecosystem services are the “outputs” and experiences of ecosystems that benefit humans, and are generated by the structure and function of natural systems, often in combination with human activities. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a global effort to catalog and assess ecosystem status and functions, offers a useful classification scheme.

Whale watching boat in Puget Sound.
Whale watching boat in Puget Sound. Photo: Dawn Noren, NOAA.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment classifications

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a global effort to catalog and assess ecosystem status and functions, offers a useful classification scheme. Their classification includes four categories (MA 2003):

  • Provisioning services are the products obtained from ecosystems, such as food and fresh water. These services are typically measured in terms of biophysical production, such as tons of salmon landings.
  • Regulating services are the benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes, such as nutrient assimilation. In the case of regulating services, as opposed to provisioning services, the level of “production” is generally not relevant. Instead, the condition of the service depends more on whether the ecosystem’s capability to regulate a particular service has been enhanced or diminished.
  • Cultural services are the nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences. Recreation, ecotourism, spiritual and religious experiences, and a sense of place are all examples of this type of service. Perceptions of cultural services are more likely to differ among individuals and communities than, say, perceptions of the importance of food production, and so they are harder to measure.
  • Supporting services are those that are necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services. For example, humans do not consume most marine low trophic-level species like plankton, but these species support higher-level species, some of which are consumed directly. Other examples of supporting services are primary production, production of atmospheric oxygen, soil formation and retention, nutrient cycling, water cycling, and provisioning of habitat.

Puget Sound is home to commercial, recreational, and tribal ceremonial and subsistence fisheries for salmon and other species, as well as clam, oyster, crab, and other shellfish harvests. It provides regulating services as global as the carbon cycle and as local as waste treatment through the uptake in estuaries of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Underlying all of these are Puget Sound’s basic supporting services such as primary production and the provision of habitat for salmon, orcas, and other species. A similar set of services are provided by the freshwater ecosystems that are linked to Puget Sound (Postel and Carpenter 1999).


Ruckelshaus, M., & McClure, M. (2007). Sound science: synthesizing ecological and socioeconomic information about the Puget Sound ecosystem. Prepared in cooperation with the Sound Science collaborative team: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NMFS), Northwest Fishieries Science Center, Seattle, Washinton. 93 p.

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About the Author: 
The development of the Sound Science document has been a collaborative process among scientists from a variety of disciplines and institutions throughout Puget Sound. The content reflects the wealth of knowledge in existing plans, research projects and personal expertise. The open dialogue and vigorous discussion about the interactions between components of the ecosystem, key threats to the system and critical science needs is almost as significant as the findings themselves. This document is the product of over 30 authors and almost 100 reviewers from federal, tribal, state, local, non-governmental, and academic institutions across the Puget Sound region. In total, hundreds of natural and social scientists have contributed either as co-authors, through extensive reviews, or by participating in workshops to debate and improve the information. We believe that the resulting content of the document thus reflects the collective views of the broad community of natural and social scientists familiar with Puget Sound. Key contributing agencies: King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, People for Puget Sound, Puget Sound Action Team, The Nature Conservancy, US Environmental Protection Agency, US Geological Survey, University of Washington, Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington State Department of Health, Washington State Department of Natural Resources.