Environmental Protection

Eroding Coral Reef

Coral Reefs Could be Moneymakers … If They Weren't Dying

Experts at a recent DIVERSITAS biodiversity conference in Cape Town showcased research suggesting that a single acre of coral reef yields an average of $53,000 in annual economic benefits, concluding that worldwide reefs are worth about $172 billion annually.

This eye-popping value certainly seems like it would warrant coral reef protection, particularly given the positive rate of return for investing in restoration and conservation projects. According to Pavan Sukhdev of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study, investing in coral reefs offers about a 7 percent rate of return. Another recent study found that spending just $315,000 to better manage coral reefs in Central American waters helped secure net annual benefits of over $4 million.

According to UN estimates, the United States possesses approximately 932,000 acres of coral reef in the Gulf of Mexico and the South Pacific. Though this is only 1.33 percent of global reefs, some U.S. corals may have especially high economic value. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggests coral reefs in southeast Florida have an asset value of $8.5 billion alone, generating $4.4 billion in local sales, $2 billion in local income, and 70,400 full and part-time jobs. Overall, U.S. corals could easily be worth more than $49 billion per year in economic benefits, based on the numbers and research from NOAA and DIVERSITAS.

However, federal efforts and expenditures to protect U.S. reefs have been limited at best. According to a 2008 report by NOAA, about half of the coral reefs within the United States are considered by scientists to be in "poor" or "fair" condition and are only getting worse. The Bush Administration set aside vast marine reserves and President Clinton established a Coral Reef Protection Task Force consisting of a dozen federal agencies and a number of states and Pacific governments. But both of these efforts have been little more than drops in the bucket.

Last week the Department of Agriculture committed $1 million to reduce damaging nutrient and watershed runoff in Puerto Rico, and the Office of Insular Affairs Coral Reefs Initiative provides $500,000 annually for reef conservation and management projects. Yet given the estimated returns on investment, more government effort to protect coral is justified; and given the serious environmental threats to corals, more effort is seriously needed.

Ultimately, global climate change and rising sea temperatures will kill coral reefs. A recent Australian investigation concluded "that earlier research may significantly understate the likely damage to the world's reefs caused by man-made change to the Earth’s atmosphere." The reefs will be hard hit by rising carbon dioxide emissions, which will raise temperatures and make the ocean too acidic for the coral to survive.

Stemming the tide will require more political will and commitment than appears to currently exist. National emissions reduction targets on the table for Copenhagen already have been criticized for being insufficient to prevent the worldwide and permanent disappearance of coral reefs, which would be a devastating economic loss on top of an environmental tragedy.

Jason A Schwartz is a Legal Fellow at the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law focusing on energy, climate change, and state-based policies.

Posted by Jason A Schwartz on Nov 16, 2009 at 12:43 PM


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