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Jamaica’s Coastal Capital at Risk: Report from the Field

A new economic valuation shows what Jamaica’s economy stands to lose if its coral reefs decline further.

Last week, I traveled to Jamaica with my colleagues Lauretta Burke and Benjamin Kushner to launch a new analysis called Coastal Capital: Jamaica – The Economic Contribution of Jamaica’s Coral Reefs. We spent several rainy days in Kingston, where we launched the report at two events, met with many members of Jamaica’s environmental community, and sampled delicious (but spicy) Jamaican cuisine. The sun came out near the end of the week, which allowed us to get out to the beach and see some coral reefs before heading back home.

Our first stop was the Jamaica Institute of Environmental Professionals’ (JIEP) bi-annual conference in Kingston. This year’s conference theme was “Balancing National Development and Environmental Protection,” and WRI officially launched Coastal Capital: Jamaica. We followed this launch event with a three-hour seminar on our results at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus. More than 80 people attended the two events, including some of the key players in environmental policy and coastal management in the country. Two of Jamaica’s national newspapers also covered the report, headlining the importance of the country’s coral reefs to its tourism and fishing industries.

Coral Reefs are Valuable

Coastal Capital: Jamaica finds that coral reefs provide significant value to the Jamaican economy. Reefs help build and protect Jamaica’s beautiful white coralline beaches, which attract millions of international tourists each year. Reefs provide critical habitat for Jamaica’s artisanal and industrial fisheries, and they also protect Jamaica’s coastline—including coastal communities and tourist hotels—from the destructive force of tropical storms. Unfortunately, Jamaica’s reefs are severely at risk, from overfishing, poorly planned coastal development, and pollution from land and sea. Climate change—which triggers warming seas and ocean acidification—is also taking its toll and its impacts are likely to increase in the future. Jamaica’s economy stands to lose if its reefs decline further.

Our key findings include:

  • Coral reef-related fisheries contribute US $34.3 million to Jamaica’s economy each year, and that this number could be much higher if Jamaica’s fisheries were sustainably managed.

  • Reef-related fisheries support between 15,000–20,000 fishermen, and contribute directly and indirectly to the livelihoods of at least 100,000 Jamaicans (or nearly 5% of the population) island-wide.

  • Further loss of coral reefs could more than double beach erosion rates in Jamaica’s major beach resort towns. Beach erosion rates could increase by more than 50 percent in Montego Bay, 70 percent in Ocho Rios, and 100 percent in Negril over a 10-year period.

  • Increased beach erosion could drive between 9,000–18,000 foreign tourists away from Jamaica each year, costing the country up to US $19 million in lost tourism revenue per year, and up to US $23 million in lost revenues to the wider Jamaican economy.

  • Coral reef degradation leads to increased wave heights during storms and thus leads to more widespread coastal flooding. For example, in Discovery Bay, severe reef degradation could cause the number of buildings flooded to more than triple.

Not the Last Word

We do not see Coastal Capital: Jamaica as the last word on the economic value and importance of the country’s coral reefs. Quite the contrary, we hope that these results will contribute to the ongoing conversation within the country about how to effectively balance Jamaica’s long-term development goals with its need to protect its natural environment in order to sustain development long into the future.

To that end, we had lively discussions at both events, as participants raised questions that quickly got to the heart of Jamaica’s most pressing environmental issues. How should Jamaica deal with its current situation of too many fishermen and not enough fish? Is the tourism industry—a leading moneymaker in Jamaica—degrading the very ecosystems it depends on, and what can be done about it? The sessions ended on a hopeful note that analysis, debate and collaboration would lead to real action.

To the Beach

<p>A glimpse of Jamaica\'s degraded reefs. Photo credit: WRI</p>

A glimpse of Jamaica's degraded reefs. Photo credit: WRI

Our last stop, of course, was the beach. At first glance, it was a tropical paradise. The sun was shining, the palm trees waved in the breeze, and the Caribbean Sea was warm and relaxing. However, all was not well under the sea surface: the corals we saw were small and some were diseased, algae was widespread, and fish (save for the invasive carnivorous lionfish) were few. Later that evening, we sampled the lionfish at a local market—contributing to the Jamaican government’s plan to encourage citizens to “eat it to beat it”—and found it quite tasty.

The fates of Jamaica’s economy and of its natural environment are closely intertwined. Although the view under the water was sobering, we came home energized and cautiously optimistic. The enthusiastic participation and healthy debates at our two events in Kingston gave us reason for hope, and reassured us that meaningful change—driven by well-intentioned and better informed individuals from all sectors of Jamaican society—is indeed possible.

WRI produced Coastal Capital: Jamaica in collaboration with UWI’s Marine Geology Unit, the Mona GeoInformatics Institute, The Nature Conservancy and Texas A&M University, with generous support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. For a summary and the full technical reports, including the valuation methodology, please visit our [Coast Capital series page](/our-work/project/coastal-capital-economic-valuation-coastal-ecosystems-caribbean.

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