Coral reefs are among the most valuable ecosystems on earth because of their immense biological wealth and the economic and environmental services they provide to millions of people. According to one estimate, reef habitats provide humans with living resources (such as fish) and services (such as tourism returns and coastal protection) worth about
$375 billion each year.
Coral reefs are important for the following reasons:
- Biodiversity. Coral reefs are among the most biologically rich ecosystems on earth. About 4,000 species of fish and 800 species of reef-building corals have been
described to date. However, experts have barely begun to catalog the total number of species found within these habitats. One prominent scientist, Marjorie Reaka-Kudla, estimates there may be between one and nine million species associated with coral
reefs.* Using this figure and rough estimates of human-caused reef degradation, Dr. Reaka-Kudla projected that over a million of these species may face extinction within
the coming four decades.
Reef-associated plants and animals provide people with:
- Seafood. Much of the world’s poor, most of whom are located within the coastal zones of developing regions, depend directly on reef species for their protein needs. Globally, one-fifth of all animal protein consumed by humans comes from marine environments – an annual catch valued at $50 billion to $100 billion.  In developing countries, coral reefs contribute about one-quarter of the total fish catch, providing food, according to one estimate, for one billion people in Asia alone.  If properly managed, reefs can yield, on average, 15 tons of fish and other seafood per square kilometer per year. However, in many areas of the world, fishers are depleting
this resource through overexploitation and destructive fishing practices. According to a World Bank estimate, Indonesia forfeits more than $10 million a year in lost productivity, coastal protection, and other benefits through large-scale poison fishing alone. Through careful management, these reefs could support a $320 million industry, employing 10,000 Indonesian fishers.
- New medicines. In recent years, human bacterial infections have become increasingly resistant to existing antibiotics. Scientists are turning to the oceans in the search for new cures for these and other diseases. Coral reef species offer particular promise because of the array of chemicals produced by many of these organisms for self-protection. This potential has only barely been explored. Corals are already being used for bone grafts, and chemicals found within several species appear useful for treating viruses. Chemicals within reef-associated species may offer new treatments for leukemia, skin cancer, and other tumors. According to one estimate, one-half of all new cancer drug research now focuses on marine organisms.
- Other products. Reef ecosystems yield a host of other economic goods, ranging from corals and shells made into jewelry and tourism curios to live fish and corals used in aquariums, to sand and limestone used by the construction industry. However, such extractive activities are usually damaging to these habitats.
Coral reefs offer a wide range of environmental services, some of which are difficult to quantify, but are of enormous importance to nearby inhabitants. These services include:
- Recreational value. The tourism industry is one of the fastest growing sectors of the global economy. Coral reefs are a major draw for snorkelers, scuba divers, recreational fishers, and tho se seeking vacations in the sun (some of the finest beaches are maintained through the natural erosion of nearby reefs). More than 100 countries stand to benefit from the recreational value provided by their reefs. Florida’s reefs pump $1.6 billion into the economy each year from tourism alone.
Caribbean countries, which attract millions of visitors annually to their beaches and reefs, derive, on average, half of their gross national product from the tourism
industry, valued at $8.9 billion in 1990.
- Coastal protection. Coral reefs buffer adjacent shorelines from wave action and the impact of storms. The benefits from this protection are widespread, and range from maintenance of highly productive mangrove fisheries and wetlands to supporting local economies built around ports and harbors, where, as is often the case in the tropics, these are sheltered by nearby reefs.
- Climate protection. Marine photosynthesizing and shell-forming organisms tie up carbon dioxide that would otherwise intensify global warming.
Globally, we estimate almost half a billion people live within 100 kilometers of a coral reef, benefiting from the production and protection these ecosystems provide.
|Almost half a billion people live near reefs
A recent study found that the costs of destroying just one kilometer of reef range from about $137,000 to almost $1.2 million over a 25-year period, when fishery,
tourism, and protection values alone are considered. 
1. Robert Costanza et al., “The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital,” Nature 387 (May 15, 1997), 256.
2. Gustav Paulay, “Diversity and Distribution of Reef Organisms,” in Life and Death of Coral Reefs, ed. Charles Birkeland (New York: Chapman and Hall, 1997), 303-4.
3. David Malakoff, “Extinction on the High Seas,” Science 277 (July 25, 1997), 487-88.
4. Les Kaufman and Paul Dayton, “Impacts of Marine Resources Extraction on Ecosystem Services and Sustainability,” in Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems, ed. Gretchen Daily (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1997), 275.
5. Stephen C. Jameson, John W. McManus and Mark D. Spalding, State of the Reefs: Regional and Global Perspectives (Washington, D.C. ICRI., U.S. Department of State, 1995), 24.
6. Donald Hinrichsen, “Requiem for Reefs?” International Wildlife (March/April 1997), 8.
7. Herman Cesar, Economic Analysis of Indonesian Coral Reefs (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1996), 4, 16.
8. Charles Birkeland, ed., Life and Death of Coral Reefs (New York: Chapman and Hall, 1997), 5.
9. William Fenical, “Marine Biodiversity and the Medicine Cabinet: The Status of New Drugs from Marine Organisms,” Oceanography, 9, no. 1 (1996), 23-24.
10. Maragos, Crosby, and McManus, “Coral Reefs and Biodiversity,” 85-7.
11. Birkeland, Life and Death of Coral Reefs, 4.
12. Jameson, McManus, and Spalding, State of the Reefs, 24.
13. Herman Cesar, Economic Analysis of Indonesian Coral Reefs (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1996).