Why accord an economic value to coral reefs?

© Lauric Thiault / Tara Expeditions Foundation

How can we evaluate a service rendered by an ecosystem at the local, regional, or global level? Methods are often very much discussed but the principle of financialization has progressively gained the spheres of decision makers, NGOs, local governments, and has become part of the dialogue between actors. Nicolas Pascal, an environmental economist specializing in coastal ecosystems, is one of the main authors of a study on the economic value of coral ecosystems in French overseas territories, conducted for IFRECOR and essential for the protection of ecosystems, reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds in French overseas territories, but also throughout the world. Explanations on the principle of assessing true value.

What is the interest in highlighting the economic value of services rendered by coral reefs and associated ecosystems (mangroves and seagrass beds), and why now?

The main purpose is to provide a new approach for policy makers and stakeholders to increase support and resources for coral reefs and associated ecosystems. We provide them with a set of clear arguments and elements of language that explain how sustainable management of coral reefs can benefit the local economy and its development.

The first economic assessments of coral reefs date back to the 90s, but were not widely reported at that time. Until now “economic value” was mainly marketable goods. But methods have evolved and our evaluation in the French overseas territories, spread over 5 years, is one of the first to provide such precise numbers and analyses.

How do you quantify the economic value of the services rendered by coral reefs and associated ecosystems? On what criteria are your estimates based ?

These services are sometimes already quantified in the gross domestic product (GDP) such as fisheries and aquaculture. As for dependence of tourism on the good condition of coral reefs, we conducted direct surveys with users concerning their level of satisfaction, nature of expenditures, and advice about proper treatment of the reefs. We also created more specific methodologies for coastal protection services. We know for example that coral reefs and mangroves absorb the energy of waves, especially during storms, thus protecting the coastline, beaches, but also infrastructure and human activities. On the other hand, mangroves and seagrass have the ability to capture CO2 — the service of carbon sequestration. These methodologies, adaptable on an international level, make it possible to quantify and evaluate economically all the benefits.

Plantation de bénitiers géants© Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation

Presenting coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass in this respect necessarily involves new interlocutors. Who are they ?

The initial request came from the Ministries of the Environment, and of Overseas Territories. They needed new arguments to defend their strategies, their budgets and to highlight the importance of coral reefs at the French and global scale: contribution to the national economy, creation of jobs, protection of infrastructure, etc. Locally the demands are also very strong, both from environmental NGOs, but also from local and regional institutions. They use our assessments in their advocacy and thus justify that coral reefs can be perceived as something other than reservoirs of biodiversity.

Do you see a difference in how coral reefs are perceived if they are presented and defended from an economic, or a purely environmental point of view?

Of course. The expression “money talks” takes on its full meaning here: it is always easier to support a project when it contributes 4 to 6% of GDP (in the case of small Pacific islands), generates locally 150 million euros per year thanks to tourism or allows to maintain more than 5,000 direct jobs.
Once all these benefits have been identified, it’s the beneficiaries’ turn to develop new financing mechanisms for the conservation of coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds. For example, tourism benefits directly from services provided by coral reefs in good condition, but so do beachfront contractors or landowners, fishermen and cooperatives. In the long term, it will be necessary to create the right conditions for everyone to contribute to the conservation of these natural environments: in a direct way, thanks to new reflexes and behaviors, or with the help of financial levers, which will have to be invented if they don’t already exist.

Corail aquarium© Vincent Hilaire /  Tara Expeditions Foundation

Some key figures :

. 1.3 billion euros: this is the annual value of services rendered by French overseas coral ecosystems, including 460 million euros for French Polynesia alone.
. For example, the service we call “blue tourism”, linked to scenic beauty and exceptional biodiversity, is worth 315 million euros annually, with a total of 1 million users and 2,800 direct jobs.
. The service of fisheries — commercial, recreational and aquaculture — represents a total of 215 million euros a year and enables 14,000 professional fishermen to earn an income from this activity.
. The economic value of the service of CO2 sequestration for mangroves and seagrass beds, covering 35,500 and 68,000 hectares respectively in French overseas territories, is estimated at 175 million euros each year. In total, about 80 million tonnes of CO2 are stored by these ecosystems.
. Finally, by absorbing up to 90% of wave energy and thus reducing damage to coastal developments during floods or extreme weather events, coral ecosystems are a source of significant savings estimated at 595 million euros annually. No less than 87,000 households today benefit from this natural protection.

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