Review of Environment, Energy and Economics - Re3 Benefits and Related Threats of Coral Reef Ecosystem Services


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Benefits and Related Threats of Coral Reef Ecosystem Services
by Sabah Abdullah
Environment - Articles

Understanding the impact of direct and indirect drivers of change on diverse marine ecosystems such as coral reefs implies that users as well as stakeholders and decision makers need to reconsider their strategies, roles and perceptions in meeting the challenges confronted by these ecosystems. The findings in this article, derived from distinct studies, imply that societies that are more exposed to threats like climate change are more likely to be vulnerable, particularly those that have low social adaptive capacity. Moreover, other results from primary valuation studies highlight that users such as recreational divers are supportive of paying towards the protection and/or restoration of coral reef ecosystems. However, what is urgently needed in benefit estimation of coral reef services is the interconnectedness of this ecosystem state to human welfare.

Key words: coral reef, restoration, marine protected area, vulnerability, climate change

JEL classification: Q51, Q54

Suggested citation: Abdullah, Sabah, Benefits and Related Threats of Coral Reef Ecosystem Services (January 23, 2014). Review of Environment, Energy and Economics (Re3),

Our marine ecosystems comprise two thirds of the Earth’s surface and about 31% of the human coastal population live within 50 km of them (UNEP, 2006). There are several benefits derived from these ecosystems namely fisheries, shore line protection and recreational use. One fragile marine ecosystem is the coral reef, an essential ecosystem for both human well-being and other marine life. However, the coral reefs’ economic contributions and understanding of their benefit to economic development, especially the effect of these benefits under natural and anthropogenic threats, are under-discussed. Some key threats that affect their productivity and related services include over-fishing, improper fishing methods, coral mining, pollution and uncontrolled tourism as well as climate change effects such as coral bleaching incidents. It is vital that we account for both the benefit and cost of these threats for ecosystem services, as human society is affected by the supply of these services. Recognition of the economic value of the coral reef ecosystem and the related threats is essential information for decision makers or planners who need to protect, manage and restore the reef ecosystem.  

In this regard, we offer complementary approaches to evaluate the reefs’ values at national and global levels by identifying key concerns found in coral reef research. These considerations include the methodological biases found in coral reef primary studies; the vulnerability of coral reef society; the recreational benefits obtained from diving in marine protected areas, as well as the economic value for coral reef restoration activities after a coral bleaching event. 

Results and Discussion
With regard to methodology biases found in the primary valuation study, we gathered and analyzed economic values found in over fifty coral reef studies. Furthermore, the variations in transferring these values, including the effect of some of the methodology biases on welfare values in both developing and developed countries were estimated. Recognising biases as pointed out in the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) guidelines (see Arrow et al., 1993) is pertinent, thus suggesting that contingent valuation methods practitioners and/or researchers need to provide detailed information in their primary studies. The key findings showed that for low income economies they have the potential to manage biases better when selecting an elicitation mode and format that are favourable to their surroundings (i.e. personal elicitation). However, limited funds in such nations may restrict the collection of larger sample sizes that could help lower biases and/or errors. Indeed, if such constraints are not accounted for when transferring values from study to policy sites, then values can be over- or under-estimated depending on the type of biases.

Concerning the vulnerability of communities living in coral-reef-endowed nations, the constructed vulnerability indices were derived from merged datasets ranging from social and economic to ecological sources. The methodology of construction was based on the multiplicative, additive and mixed approach of three components namely exposure, sensitivity and adaptation capacity. The main findings were that vulnerability indices vary across countries and the ranking results confirm previous studies that at regional/national-scale, the most vulnerable nations are those located in developing and/or emerging countries. Irrespective of the vulnerability methodology method, there are no uniform approaches in adaptation and mitigation efforts for the various countries. Therefore, for policy relevance, stakeholders need to plan, manage and allocate resources effectively and efficiently in distinct regions to accommodate the variation in human well-being and the ecosystem state.   

In analysing the benefit and cost related to recreational diving in marine protected areas (MPAs), the methodology used was a contingent valuation approach, where the improvement of the reef ecosystem was undertaken after a climate change in the form of coral bleaching in MPA. The main findings revealed that an additional amount of around US$13 per dive is needed to be paid above the current entrance fee of US$10. Moreover, a case study of other MPA costs found in coral reef literature revealed that nearly all the revenues derived from entrance fees in most MPAs are insufficient to meet the operational costs of these sites. Hence, the implication of these results to policy implies that the MPA can charge or increase the entrance fees at this time particularly when threats like coral bleaching events are predicted to increase (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999).  Obviously, policy decisions will need to consider the most effective means of enforcement, pricing strategies and other governance issues of relevance to ensure administration costs are minimized in protected areas.  

Similarly, another contingent valuation study was used in assessing the impact of adaptation efforts in the form of the coral restoration programme initiated after coral bleaching (as a part of climate change impact). The main findings revealed that the benefit of such programmes were US$40/ha at the global level for a healthy coral reef state, whereas for a less healthy one this figure stands at US$95/ha. The result suggests that it is plausible to charge and implement funds towards coral restoration given the current support by users is favourable. Subsequently, managers as well as planners should take this opportunity to establish supporting actions towards coral reef restoration on sites. 

To sum up, managers, decision makers and other stakeholders need to know the implication of some inconsistencies that exist in coral reef valuation studies. Above all, what is imperative is a uniform reporting way of key methodological biases and their implication to the benefit transfer specifically capitalizing spatial mapping tools.   

Regarding the vulnerability index, it is vital for nations dependent on coral reef ecosystems to be wary of level of threats that are likely to influence exposure for communities living nearby and/or far away. Moreover, the estimation of the values associated with coral reef restoration as well as MPAs provides planners with reference values to improve the ecological functions of coral reef ecosystems.  In other words, such values can help decision makers as well as researchers in ecological and recreational modelling in estimating the benefit of coral reef programmes under threats such as climate change. 

The above mentioned results were obtained from a recent EU Commission-Funded Seventh Framework (FP7) Project, entitled “Risks of global warming for the case of coral reef ecosystems in developing countries (BIOCORE)”, a Marie Curie fellowship, coordinated by FEEM. 


Arrow, K., Solow, R., Portney, P.R., Leamer, E.E., Radner, R. and Schuman,H. (1993), Report of the NOAA panel on contingent valuation. NOAA. (Accessed on 2 May 2013).

EU Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) project. Risks of global warming: the case of coral reef ecosystems in developing countries (BIOCORE), contract no. PIEF-GA-2009-253724.   (Accessed on 28 September 2013)

Hoegh-Guldberg O. 1999. Coral bleaching, climate change and the future of the world’s coral reefs. Review, Marine and Freshwater Research, 50, 839-866.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). 2006. Marine and coastal ecosystems and human well-being: a synthesis report based on the findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi, Kenya, 76 pp. 









Sabah Abdullah, Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Biology, The Marine Spatial Ecology Laboratory, The University of Queensland