Americans peg the value of coral reefs around the main Hawaiian Islands at $33.57
billion, a study commissioned by the federal government said last week.
Officials frequently cite coral reefs as being vital to tourism and other industries. But
there’s been no dollar figure to accompany such statements, so the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asked researchers to study the issue.
The study hasn’t yet appeared in a publication, but the authors plan to submit it to a
top environmental economic journal.
It’s difficult to put a price on coral reefs, which can’t be bought and sold. So
researchers arrived at the figure by surveying 3,200 Americans across the
nation and asking them how much of their income taxes they would want devoted
to hypothetical initiatives to improve the health of Hawaii’s reefs.
This approach is based on the idea that people don’t just derive value from actions that directly involve coral reefs, like snorkeling or buying fish caught in reefs. So while some people may not buy or trade any goods or services involving coral, they value them in the sense of believing reefs are important and should be preserved for future generations.
Based on what respondents said, researchers estimated the average American household
would be willing to have $287.62 of its taxes spent on protecting Hawaii’s reefs. They multiplied this figure by the 116.7 million households in the nation for the $33.57 billion total.
Researchers explained any funds spent on reefs would come at the expense of other federal
programs so the survey would reflect how respondents felt about coral relative to other priorities like Medicare, education and defense.
Respondents were more likely to want their taxes to support Hawaii’s reefs if they were
strong environmentalists, expected to visit Hawaii in the next 10 years, and had ever visited a coral reef somewhere in the world.
They were less likely to want to spend money on Hawaii’s reefs if they were married and
owned a home.
One hypothetical initiative was to address overfishing and the other was to repair
damage caused to coral by ship accidents.
Removing too many fish from coral reefs can upset the ecosystem’s balance. For example,
because fewer fish are around to eat algae, algae populations can explode and
The overfishing initiative called for greatly expanding Hawaii’s non-fishing zones
from the current 1 percent of reefs to 25 percent.
Researchers used the 25 percent figure after NOAA scientists they consulted said this was
the scale needed to substantially improve the health of the reef ecosystem.
The other ship damage initiative presented to survey respondents called for repairing 5 acres of coral reefs damaged by ship accidents. Researchers came up with this idea after NOAA scientists said that was a rough estimate of the area of coral reef damaged by vessels in an average year.
Researchers didn’t ask respondents how much they would pay to address other factors that
harm reef health, including pollution from runoff. This is because scientists told the researchers overfishing is a bigger problem in Hawaii. The researchers also needed to narrow the focus of the survey’s questions to make them easier for respondents to understand.
Expanding no-fishing zones along the lines explored in the study could generate
opposition from fishermen in Hawaii.
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