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How much are coral ecosystems worth? Try $172 billion–A year

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


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pillar coralCoral ecosystems are worth an amazing $172 billion a year to the world economy, according to research presented last week at the DIVERSITAS biodiversity conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

The value of coral reefs comes from a variety of "services," including food and raw materials, moderation of extreme ocean events, water purification, recreation, tourism and maintenance of biological diversity.

Individual coral reefs vary in value, but according to United Nations Environment Programme economist Pavan Sukhdev, head of a Cambridge, England–based project called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), the average is $130,000 per hectare (10,000 square meters). Particularly vital reefs have much higher values, all the way up to $1.2 million per hectare.

Sukhdev’s estimates are based on valuation studies of more than 80 coral reef ecosystems.

Of course, that financial benefit is threatened by rapidly warming ocean waters and ocean acidification, which are killing coral reefs around the world. At the conference, Sukhdev said that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels need to be reduced to 350 parts per million, and that anything higher would be "a death sentence on the world’s coral reefs." Carbon dioxide levels are currently at 390 ppm, and climate activists fear that December’s international summit in Copenhagen will set future goals at 450 ppm.

He isn’t the only one concerned. This week, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed a petition seeking to protect 83 coral species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA)—they all live in U.S. coastal waters. "Coral reefs are the world’s most endangered ecosystems," said CBD Oceans Director Miyoko Sakashita in a prepared statement.

"Preventing the extinction of coral reefs and the marine life that depends upon them is an enormous undertaking," Sakashita said. "The Endangered Species Act has an important role to play in that effort. But without rapid CO2 reductions, the fate of the world’s coral reefs will be sealed."

The ESA currently protects just two species of coral.

Image: Pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindricus), one of the coral species the Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned to protect under the Endangered Species Act. Via Wikipedia.

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  1. 1. doug 1 7:25 am 10/22/2009

    If warming and decreased alkalinity is harming the coral reefs of the world, why are there coral reefs that are still fine in some places? Why are the reefs that are showing the most stress the ones that are proximal to human activities that generate silt and human runoff from nearby landforms? Coral in Florida Keys in peril. Coral in Cuba is fine. Coral near the eco-resort which just upgraded its beach by adding sand dredged-up from the lagoon and sprayed onto the local strand for their customers, and putting in a nice bit of lawn and a nice new putting green is dying, coral that is near uninhabited island is still OK? Could it be that certain parts of the ocean are warmer and more acidic? That seems unlikley, but the fact that human generated sediments rich in nitrates have been generated does sound quite plausible.

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  2. 2. hotblack 11:36 am 10/22/2009

    What a shame that a whole planet has to die to teach one species (which generally considers itself the smartest of all) a simple lesson in self control. Oh well, who cares! Time to have lots of kids, build a big house, and use an Escalade whenever I have to go somewhere. Pfft.

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  3. 3. galaxy_man 1:10 pm 10/22/2009

    You are making a fair point. It’s quite reasonable to accept that the acidification of the world’s oceans hasn’t completely diffused throughout the system. Naturally such a process will be concentrated at points of high industrial activity. However, equilibrium is unavoidable. At some point this development will spread to all corners of the globe as it continues to grow, and when it does all of the dependent ecosystems will be threatened equally.

    The upshot is that the current state of things -might- have provided enough warning that we can put a stop to it. Considering the political nature of such solutions, though, I tend to doubt we will manage it.

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  4. 4. goinganextramile 1:26 pm 10/23/2009

    And yet governments and local authorities continue to bend over backwards to subsidise the fishing industries, paying them not to further decimate what they’ve already decimated and allowing them to fish every last fish out of the sea, down and down until they’re trawling jellyfish. There’s huge opportunities for employment and profits in the tourism and leisure sectors in coastal environments but not so much when the fish are sparse, the coral’s bleached, and the surfs are thick with jellyfish and cyanobacteria.

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