Coral reefs have more than existence value. They are important not only to the biodiverse life they and their affiliated ecosystems support, but to their human population as well. Reef-associated plants and animals provide people with:
Seafood: Much of the world's poor are located within the coastal zones of developing regions and 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 begun to be 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, extractive techniques need to be undertaken in a sustainable manner in order to not damage 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 those 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. 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. 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.
Source: D. Bryant et al. Reefs at Risk: A map-based indicator of threats to the world's coral reefs. (Washington DC: World Resources Institute, 1998)