Putting a price on coral reefs

Image: An incredibly valuable section of healthy coral reef.



The Catlin Seaview Survey is currently surveying the coral reefs of the Turks and Caicos Islands. The Turks and Caicos Islands are surrounded by approximately 1600 kilometres of coral reefs, which contribute roughly USD $47.3 million a year to the national economy (Carleton and Lawrence, 2005). For a small island nation, this makes coral reefs a valuable national asset.


How do you measure the worth of a coral reef?

Coral reefs provide a lot of value to us. They are a rich source of food; they protect coastlines from storms and erosion; they provide a habitat for spawning and juvenile fish species; they provide jobs and income from fishing, recreation, and tourism; and they are a source of new medicines and marine biodiversity.


Coral reefs provide food

The majority of fishing activity in the Turks and Caicos is for spiny lobster and queen conch, which had been the mainstay of the local economy for decades. However, since an increase in tourism in the last twenty years, there has been an increased pressure for reef species such as groupers, snappers and grunts (Clerveaux et al 2002 cited Clerveaux et al 2003).

Studies estimate that 1 km of healthy reef can sustainably produce between 15 and 20 tonnes of fish each year. In contrast, poor quality reefs produce less than 5 tonnes. With an increased demand for reef species, many reefs run the risk of becoming over-fished, which can have long-lasting effects.

Overfishing (the removal of food faster than a reef can regenerate it) causes the ecosystem to become unsustainable and productivity of the ecosystem drops. Reefs that have been stripped of fish have a lower resilience, leaving them more vulnerable to other types of disturbance such as disease and coral bleaching. With fisheries contributing USD $3.7 million per year to the Turks and Caicos economy, fishing sustainably will preserve the productivity and diversity of coral reefs over the long term.


Coral reefs provide employment

Healthy coral reef ecosystems support local businesses and economies, as well as provide jobs through tourism and recreation. It is estimated that the tourism and diving industry in the Turks and Caicos is worth $18.2 million per year to the national economy through diving tours, recreational fishing trips, hotels, restaurants, transport companies and other associated businesses.

Diving is one of the key components of reef tourism with divers seeking out healthy coral reef habitats. As a result, many divers travel to marine protected areas, such as The Columbus National Marine Park in the Turks and Caicos, for a chance to dive high-quality reefs.


Coral reefs provide protection

The rough surfaces and complex structures of a healthy coral reef provide a buffer against waves, storms, and floods, helping to prevent loss of life, property damage, and erosion to shorelines. This is especially important for island nations like the Turks and Caicos, as a large proportion of the island’s infrastructure, including houses, roads, airports and tourism hot spots, are on the coast. This protection is worth $16.9 million per year to the Turks and Caicos economy.


Management of coral reef ecosystems

Despite their great economic and recreational value, a range of human activities still threatens coral reefs both in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and around the world. Water pollution, overfishing and destructive fishing practices, disease, changing ocean temperatures and ship groundings are contributing to the demise of these valuable natural resources.

The health of coral reefs depends on sustainable human uses and careful management. The more we understand about these complex ecosystems the better placed we are to manage them.