[Coral-List] Importance of coral reefs

Toby Gardner T.Gardner at uea.ac.uk
Sun Aug 17 05:15:42 EDT 2003

Dear all,

It is good to see this debate after the recent barrage of studies highlighting 
the dire state of coral reefs worldwide.  I found a review by Moberg and Folke 
(1999) - see below - to be a very good summary of the different values that 
can be placed on coral reefs.  I am not aware of a more recent review ....

Laying values on any ecosystem is always a difficult and dangerous game as the 
debate is dogged by how to quantify the very real but more indirect values we 
place on ecosystem health.  Then there is the debate on to what extent, if 
even at all, we should discount values into the future to reflect our 
overwhelming concern about the present.  It is my view that in all valuation 
studies of ecosystem goods and services the focus is (necessarily) on direct 
benefits - e.g. tourist dollars, coastal storm protection etc.  Due to a lack 
of consensus on methods, as well as deficiency in information, other values 
are often under-represented: e.g. to use the jargon from economics, (1) option 
value - which acknowledges that our existing understanding is limited and many 
as yet unknown benefits of coral reefs may be realised in the future; the 
foundation of the precautionary principle, (2) indirect - non-consumption - 
values - e.g. the role that coral reefs may play in maintaining the balance of 
neighboring ecosystems or local climate.  Implicit in this has to again be the 
acknowledgement that our present understanding is limited and we are therefore 
obliged to be precautionary (a good example in the case of coral reefs would 
be their potential importance in the maintenance of neighboring mangrove and 
seagrass habitats). (3) Bequest values - or in other words any altruistic 
desire to ensure that future generations have the same direct-consumption 
(edible fish, tourist activities etc) opportunities as today's generation, and 
(4) existence value - the value many of us place on species or habitats 
because their simple existence enriches our own welfare or quality of life.  
This is realised to some extent by the membership of environmental protection 

This under-representation of the above considerations means that we frequently 
underestimate the true value the global community places on coral reefs - a 
product of both direct but also more indirect benefits.  I agree that we 
should be wary of quoting figures that cannot be substantiated by hard 
evidence (for an example see the damaging attack that Bjorn Lomborg launched 
on the environmental movement with his recent book the Skeptical 
Environmentalist).  However, we should also remember that just because we can 
only support a limited proportion of the total value we place on coral reefs 
with hard facts, does not mean we should forget the existence of many (as yet 
unquantifiable) other values that undoubtedly exist.  In essence our attitude 
should be one of overwhelming precaution.  Difficult, and even perhaps totally 
naïve in today’s capitalist world, but surely such an attitude must be 
constantly voiced if it is ever to take hold in the eyes and ears of the 
public and governments all over the world.


Toby Gardner

Moberg, F., and C. Folke. 1999. Ecological goods and services of coral reef 
ecosystems. Ecological Economics 29:215-233.

Toby Gardner
Postgraduate Researcher
Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Conservation
University of East Anglia
Norwich, UK

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