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USC Dornsife Scientific Diving: The Devaluation of Ecosystem Services

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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By Stephen Holle

The United States Territory of Guam is the focal point of a military realignment strategy within the western Pacific Ocean. However, the plan has a number of shortcomings in relation to its environmental impacts, which could seriously threaten the health of certain biomes in the region, especially coral reefs.

Apra Harbor

Image of proposed berthing sites. Image from U.S. Department of Defense Environmental Impact Statement "Guam and CMNI Military Relocation," July 2010.

What is not considered in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for Guam is the true value of ecosystem services, such as the ability of coral reefs to support marine biodiversity and provide a basis for tourism revenue in this region.

A report conducted by The World Resources Institute suggests that healthy reef ecosystems worldwide provide 797.4 billion dollars in net present value, 9 billion of which is from tourism alone. Since coral reefs occupy less than 2% of the ocean’s surface, these resources need to be preserved wherever possible (Cesar 2007).

Situated on the western shore of Guam adjacent to an already heavily developed area, Apra Harbor will face further impaction through proposed developments. The Department of Defense (DOD) outlines these impacts as “shore-side improvements creating a new capability in Apra Harbor, Guam, to support a transient nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (DEIS).”

Elephant Ear Sponge - Ianthella basta – on Western Shoals Reef. In Guam this sponge is restricted to Apra Harbor. (Photo by Jim Haw)

Elephant Ear Sponge - Ianthella basta – on Western Shoals Reef. In Guam this sponge is restricted to Apra Harbor. (Photo by Jim Haw)

Currently, the DEIS proposes three methods of berthing a nuclear aircraft carrier. The first two alternatives are the most impactful measures and would require the dredging and removal of sixty acres of coral within the harbor. In order to justify this sort of development, the DOD contracted out species surveys of the Apra Harbor reefs to evaluate the diversity of the region.

However, when Brent Tibbatts (biologist at the local Aquatics and Wildlife Agency) and his colleagues repeated the surveys, they found that there were nearly 100% more coral species than originally projected. According to Brent, “the original surveys highly underestimated the diversity of the area in relation to coral, fish, invertebrates, and other natural resources and appraisals done in relation to the economic value of the area in 2007 highly undervalued the region’s natural resources.” Brent also suggested that it is known that some of the species of corals are endemic to Apra Harbor and are found nowhere else on Guam (Tibbatts 2012).

USC Students surveying Western Shoals Guam Reef in Apra Harbor in 2011. (Photo by Jim Haw)

USC Students surveying Western Shoals Guam Reef in Apra Harbor in 2011. (Photo by Jim Haw)

While environmental resources such as healthy coral reefs in Apra Harbor provide one of the bases for revenue in the region (tourism), this factor is not taken into consideration in the DEIS. In the past the income stream for Guam was primarily based on Federal and military investments (75%) but, as of 2003 that number has dropped to 30% and tourism now contributes over 60% of the revenue on Guam, or approximately 1.35 billion dollars per year.

One of the bases for tourism revenue is from activities that directly involve Apra Harbor. It has unique dive sites found nowhere else on the island and if a nuclear aircraft carrier were berthed in the harbor certain dive sites would not be accessible for an additional 40 days out of the year due to security concerns.

Yet while the United States military sees an imminent need to develop Apra Harbor, it is fair to suggest that people visiting Guam are not there to see the latest in missile defense systems, nuclear aircraft carriers, and the newest trends in military technology. People go to Guam for pristine reefs, tropical ecosystems, and to explore the wonderful diversity of the ocean (Invest Guam 2012, Tibbatts 2012).

Sources Cited

Cesar, Herman, Lauretta Burke, and Lida Pet-Soede. “The Economics of Worldwide Coral Reef Degradation.” Cesar Environmental Economics Consulting (2003): 1-24. Online.

Invest Guam: Business Resources, 2012. Web. 3 April. 2012.

Tibbatts, Brent. Personal Interview. 3 April. 2012.

The author exiting the ocean at the USC Dornsife Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. (Photo by Jim Haw)

The author exiting the ocean at the USC Dornsife Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. (Photo by Jim Haw)

About the Author: Stephen Holle is a senior working toward a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies at USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. With his ENST scientific diving experience he hopes to move on to a career focused on policy and natural resource management.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies

Previously in this series:

Catching Up with Scientific Diving at USC Dornsife: Surfgrass Monitoring at Catalina
Catching up with Scientific Diving at USC Dornsife: The Robot Submarine
Catching up with Scientific Diving at USC Dornsife: Diving into the Aquarium of the Pacific
USC Dornsife Scientific Diving: Moving Forward to Guam and Palau 2012
USC Dornsife Scientific Diving: Finding My Career Through This Course

About the Author: Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and director of the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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