Many of us at this time of year are focused on what purchases we need to make in preparation for the holidays, balancing who we must buy gifts for and how much we can spend. I am a terrible shopper and also am known to be impecunious in my spending habits, so I am often less than excited about this aspect of the season.

Instead, I have been thinking of the value of the unpurchasable things that I treasure. Friends and family are, of course, paramount, and also a focus of this time of year.

But, another treasure I hold close is the natural world and all that it provides both in terms of its resources and its beauty.

Many people have tried to put numerical values on various aspects of nature to compare it to other parts of our world and it is always a challenge. But, it is an exercise worth doing when it helps us to more fully understand all that we gain from these resources.

One of the reasons that I live in Maine is my great love of the ocean – its scenic beauty, its deep history, and the culture it supports. While its span is great, the relationship with the ocean can be quite local.

Here in the Midcoast, we are bordered by the ocean morsel of Casco Bay, which spans from Small Point in Phippsburg across to Cape Elizabeth to the west. It is an amazing geographic stretch that holds within it a range of ecological habitats, as well as human uses and impacts.

The relationship of the inhabitants of Casco Bay to its waters is so varied that it is difficult to circumscribe. How could anyone begin to quantify what it is worth to all of us living on its shores?

The answer is that it takes all of us to help quantify it, and a group dedicated to the long-term health of the bay has attempted to harness this information and put it to good use.

Back in 1990, Casco Bay was named an “estuary of national significance,” and shortly thereafter, a report assessing its economic value was compiled.

This assessment of its value sparked interest in protecting the health of the bay. Now, more than 25 years later, it is time to take another look.

Recently, the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, a non-profit organization based at the University of Southern Maine, completed a new report that estimated the current economic value of the bay.

The study was done in collaboration with the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at USM, and with the help of Rbouvier Consulting. It focuses on the economic benefits of the bay, both to the region and to the state as a whole and aims to create a plan for re-assessing the ocean economy as it grows over time.

The report includes some striking numbers, from the impressive 32 percent of the state’s economy that comes from a region that is only 4 percent of the state’s landmass, to the fact that 80 percent of jobs in Casco Bay’s ocean economy come from tourism and recreation.

It also identifies the areas of greatest growth – marine transportation has nearly doubled over the last 10 years and marine construction has increased by 36 percent. Of the living resources evaluated, shellfish constitute the largest proportion at 61 percent, with finfish and seafood prep and packaging around 15 percent each.

These numbers do not represent a complete picture of Casco Bay’s value, but do help us to understand the aspects that are quantifiable. These are important aspects, in addition to the unquantifiable benefits that many feel about living on or near the bay.

One of the real outcomes of a study such as this is to help us mark where we are in time. The assessment of how things have changed over the last couple of decades is instructive and can help us to make better decisions as we progress into the future.

As CBEP Executive Director Curtis Bohlen put it, “As we face sometimes difficult changes in our coastal environment, Casco Bay region communities and its policy makers will have to make choices to protect our natural resources, our water quality and infrastructure. These coastal changes will have serious economic implications as well. Documenting the impacts of these coastal economy sectors will help us make choices that can safeguard our communities.”

Perhaps a gift we can all give to each other as residents of the bay is to take a moment to think about both the quantifiable and unquantifiable value of Casco Bay and to be grateful for all that it provides.

If you’re interested in seeing the full report, you can download a copy at www.cascobayestuary.org.