The Value of Corals

Healthy coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and economically valuable ecosystems on earth, providing valuable and vital ecosystem services. Coral ecosystems are a source of food for millions; protect coastlines from storms and erosion; provide habitat, spawning and nursery grounds for economically important fish species; provide jobs and income to local economies from fishing, recreation, and tourism; are a source of new medicines, and are hotspots of marine biodiversity.

Biodiversity: Coral reefs are essential spawning, nursery, breeding, and feeding grounds for numerous organisms. In terms of biodiversity, the variety of species living on a coral reef is greater than in any other shallow-water marine ecosystems and is one of the most diverse on the planet, yet coral reefs cover less than one tenth of one percent of the ocean floor. Coral reefs support more than 800 hard coral species and more than 4,000 species of fish.

Coastal Protection: Healthy coral reefs have rough surfaces and complex structures that dissipate much of the force of incoming waves; this buffers shorelines from currents, waves, and storms, helping to prevent loss of life, property damage, and erosion.  Coastlines protected by reefs are more stable, in terms of erosion, and are also a source of sand in natural beach replenishment

Fisheries: The fish that grow and live on coral reefs are a significant food source for over a billion people worldwide—many of whom live far from the reefs that feed them. Approximately half of all federally managed fisheries in the United States depend on coral reefs and related habitats for a portion of their life cycles. The NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service estimates the annual commercial value of US fisheries from coral reefs to be over $100 million. Reef-based recreational fisheries generate over $100 million annually in the US. Globally, one estimate shows fisheries benefits account for $5.7 billion of the total $29.8 billion global net benefit provided by coral reefs. Sustainable coral reef fisheries in Southeast Asia alone are valued at $2.4 billion per year. These numbers do not take into account the value of deep-sea corals, which are themselves home for many commercially valuable species and thus additional fisheries value.

Medicine: Many species found in coral ecosystems produce chemical compounds for defense or attack, particularly the slow-moving or stationary species like nudibranchs and sponges. Searching for potential new pharmaceuticals, termed bioprospecting, has been common in terrestrial environments for decades. However, bioprospecting is relatively new in the marine environment and is nowhere close to realizing its full potential. Creatures found in coral ecosystems are important sources of new medicines being developed to induce and ease labor; treat cancer, arthritis, asthma, ulcers, human bacterial infections, heart disease, viruses, and other diseases; as well as sources of nutritional supplements, enzymes, and cosmetics. The medicines and other potentially useful compounds identified to date have led to coral ecosystems being referred to as the medicine cabinets of the 21st century by some, and the list of approved and potential new drugs is ever growing.

Tourism and Recreation: Every year, millions of scuba divers and snorkelers visit coral reefs to enjoy their abundant sea life. Even more tourists visit the beaches protected by these reefs. Local economies receive billions of dollars from these visitors to reef regions through diving tours, recreational fishing trips, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses based near reef ecosystems. One estimate places the total global value of coral-reef based recreation and tourism at $9.6 billion of the total global net benefit of coral reefs.



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