Value of Coral Ecosystems

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. They also are of great cultural importance in many regions around the world, particularly Polynesia.

he chart depicts the breakdown of component values that contribute the the global annual value of coral ecosystems
The chart above depicts the breakdown of component values that contribute the the global annual value of coral ecosystems. Credit: NOAA

Hanau ka 'Uko-ko'ako'a, hanau kana, he Ako'ako'a, puka. (Born the coral polyp, born of him a coral colony emerged.)

Kumulipo, Hawaiian hymn of creation

Coral reef declines will have alarming consequences for approximately 500 million people who depend on coral reefs for food, coastal protection, building materials, and income from tourism. This includes 30 million who are virtually totally dependent on coral reefs for their livelihoods or for the land they live on (atolls)." — Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008)

The economic and intrinsic value of coral ecosystems has been recognized internationally. Some actions to preserve coral ecosystems for future generations include:

  • Over 13 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List contain coral ecosystems, including, among others, the Great Barrier Reef (added in 1981), Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Philippines (added in 2009) and the Belize Barrier Reserve System, (added to the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2009). In 2009, the US government nominated the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument for addition to the List.

  • As part of the Micronesia Challenge, five nations and territories in the Micronesia region, including the US territories of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, have committed to conserve at least 30 percent of their near-shore marine resources by 2020. Caribbean nations and territories are following suit with a pledge to conserve at least 20 percent of their marine and coastal habitats by 2020.

  • US National Marine Sanctuaries and three Marine National Monuments contain coral ecosystems.

In the US, coral reefs are found in the waters of the Western Atlantic and Caribbean (Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands) and the Pacific Islands (Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands). They are also found along the coasts of over 100 other countries.

While it is difficult to put a dollar value on some of the benefits coral ecosystems provide, one recent estimate gave the total net benefit of the world's coral reef ecosystems to be $29.8 billion/year. [a] For example, the economic importance of Hawai`i's coral reefs, when combining recreational, amenity, fishery, and biodiversity values, were estimated to have direct economic benefits of $360 million/year. [b]

The global value above does not account for the economic value of deep-sea coral ecosystems, which, while less well studied and understood, also provide important ecosystem services. Deep-sea corals serve as hot-spots of biodiversity in the deeper ocean and their structure provides enhanced feeding opportunities, a place to hide from predators, a nursery area for juveniles, fish spawning aggregation sites, and a place for sedentary invertebrates to grow, much like their coral reef counterparts. These ecosystems have been identified as habitat for commercially important fishes such as rockfish, shrimp, and crabs. Deep-sea corals are also being targeted in the search for new medicines. [c] The value of these services adds to the global value of coral ecosystems.

Yet coral reefs are in decline due to an increasing array of threats—primarily from global climate change, unsustainable fishing impacts, and land-based pollution. According to the Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008, 19 percent of the world's reefs are effectively lost, 15 percent are seriously threatened with loss in the next 10-20 years, and 20 percent are under threat of loss in the next 20-40 years. [d] The decline and loss of coral reefs have significant social, cultural, economic, and ecological impacts on people and communities in the US and around the world. However, with effective leadership and management, healthy, resilient reef ecosystems can continue to provide these valuable services to current and future generations.

The value of coral reefs was the focus of a CRCP public service announcement project which produced a series of poster for display on billboards, in airport terminals, and on bus shelters.

Scientists around the world have been working to document and name the species occurring on Earth for over 250 years; in that time over 1.5 million species have been identified. However, even conservative estimates hint that 90 percent of the life forms on Earth have yet to be discovered or described. Alarming rates of extinction, primarily due to human impacts, put us in a race against time to discover species in time to save them. Coral ecosystems are no different; new discoveries of species associated with coral ecosystems are documented each year, but untold numbers of other species become extinct before science even knows they exist. Coral ecosystems are degrading due to a number of threats despite the hard work of many to bring light to the value and plight of the world's coral ecosystems.

*Unless otherwise noted, all monetary values presented are in US Dollars.


  • The Economics of Worldwide Coral Reef Degradation. Cesar Environmental Economics Consulting, Arnhem, and WWF-Netherlands, Zeist, The Netherlands. 23 pp.
  • Cesar, H., P. van Beukering, S. Pintz, and J.Dierking, 2002. Economic valuation of Hawaiian reefs. Arnham, The Netherlands: Cesar Environment Economics Consulting.
  • Lumsden, SE, Hourigan TF, Bruckner AW, Dorr G (eds.) 2007. The State of Deep Coral Ecosystems of the United States. NOAA Technical Memorandum CRCP-3. Silver Spring MD
  • Wilkinson, C. 2008. Status of the Coral Reefs of the World: 2008. Townsville, Australia. Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and Reef and Rainforest Research Centre.