Coral reefs are the “rainforests of the sea,” supporting a rich diversity of marine life. Globally, they face threats from overfishing, pollution, and human development, as well as from climate change.

The government of St. Maarten recently advanced conservation of these ecosystems when it established the country’s first national park, protecting 1,500 hectares of coral reefs and sea grasses. An analysis quantifying the economic value of the proposed park’s tourism, using WRI’s coral reef valuation method, played a key role in its establishment.

Protecting Nature for People

Reef-related tourism, including diving and snorkeling, is central to St. Maarten’s economy. Reefs and coralline beaches attract 2 million visitors a year, and tourism directly or indirectly employs 75 percent of the country’s population. Reefs and sea grass also nurture fisheries worth US$2 million per year, providing an important source of food and livelihoods for islanders.

Despite their economic value, St. Maarten’s reefs have been degrading for decades due to coastal development and overfishing. In 2010, the St. Maarten Nature Foundation began campaigning for a protected park, using a WRI methodology to show that marine ecosystems contribute US$58 million a year to the country’s economy through tourism and fisheries.

After a negotiation process, the government established Man of War Shoal Marine Park, protecting the island’s most ecologically, economically, and culturally important marine habitats from overexploitation. St Maarten’s conservation milestone also sets a precedent for the wider Caribbean region, where economies depend heavily on coastal ecosystems, yet human activity threatens 75 percent of coral reefs.

Making a Difference: WRI’s Role

WRI’s Coastal Capital project helped make the designation of St. Maarten’s first national park possible. Beginning in 2005, we developed a simple and transparent method for resource managers and conservationists to calculate the economic value of coastal habitats, including reefs.

Resource managers at the St. Maarten Nature Foundation downloaded the Excel-based tools from WRI’s website and used them to collect and analyze data on the economic value of tourism and fisheries within the proposed marine park. After the foundation made its findings public, the economic valuation provided the basis for political support.

To date, WRI and our local partners have conducted economic valuations of coral reefs and mangroves in five Caribbean countries: Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, Belize, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. As in St. Maarten, we are using the results to build support for policies that help ensure both healthy coastal ecosystems and sustainable economies.