Putting a Price on Coral: The Value of Reefs

diver diver
Photo by Devon Ledbetter, Key Biscayne, FL

Diving DeeperĀ Blog 1:

Putting a Price on Coral:

The Value of Reefs.  

By Devon Ledbetter

     Coral reefs play a vital role in our world today, and all of us benefit either directly or indirectly from their presence in our oceans. Studies estimate that over half a billion individuals directly benefit from the presence of reefs as a source food, income, and shoreline protection (1). Even though corals cover less than 0.2% of the Earth’s surface, they provide tangible environmental and economic benefits to areas far beyond the seaside cities which border them (2) Coral reefs act as a barrier against storms by reducing wave energy, a revenue fountainhead through tourism, a source of food for fisheries and even a place for the discovery of new medicines. While corals provide countless valuable goods and services, the role of these reefs can be categorized into three main facets: bolstering biodiversity, stimulating seaside economies, and safeguarding shorelines from intense storm damage. If these underwater ecosystems were lost, each of these areas would suffer; destruction from hurricanes would be intensified, economies would crumble, and fisheries would vanish. Understanding all the benefits that coral reefs provide is the first step to stimulating change to conserve them; we must understand the extreme value of a resource to be motivated to conserve it.

      All of this begs the primary question of “what is a coral?” Many people are quick to think that corals are simply plants- a logical assumption based on their outward appearance. However, people are often shocked to discover that corals are both plants and animals. While a coral is an animal, many survive through a symbiotic relationship with microscopic organisms known as zooxanthellae which live in the tissue of a host coral (3).


These tiny symbionts photosynthesize to create energy from the sunlight to support the coral, while the corals provide protection to the zooxanthellae (4). Because both parties benefit from the presence of one another, this is considered mutualistic symbiosis (3). If the zooxanthellae leave the coral because of unfavorable conditions (like a coral bleaching event), the coral must fend for itself at risk of dying without the symbionts acting as its primary energy source (4). Considering a coral’s biology is critical when analyzing human and environmental stressors to

the reef systems, but also gives us a better understanding for the complexity and roles of coral reefs. While individual corals may seem small, they congregate together to create massive coral reefs. These corals colonize to build structures so large and complex that they are visible even in outer space. It’s these reef structures which play a critical role in maintaining the underwater ecosystem and provide us all the goods and services we gain from their presence in our oceans.


 Coral reefs are a valuable ecological resource that have been labeled as the "rainforests of the sea" because of the biodiversity that they support. These underwater ecosystems are estimated to house roughly 800 species of corals and 4,000 species of fish around the world (5). When a coral reef is healthy and thriving, it acts as a structurally complex part of the underwater world and provides protection for the marine organisms. Studies have shown that even large apex predators, like the Blackmouth catshark (Galeus melastomus), use the coral reefs as spawning grounds to lay their eggs in

hopes of increasing their likelihood of survival (6). Many species of marine organisms use these coral reefs as mating and spawning grounds, congregating over the reef as they reproduce (6). Because of this, reefs act as nurseries for juvenile fish by providing a habitat teeming with food and resources. The presence of a coral reef within an ocean ecosystem leads to a higher abundance and variety of organisms as they gather to feed, mate, reproduce, and grow, meaning that reefs play a critical role in maintaining high biodiversity and productivity.

   Even above water’s surface, corals provide tangible benefits which help support seaside economies. Reefs provide a source of income through ecotourism, as well as bolstering the health and diversity of local fisheries. As discussed, coral reefs act as a hub of biodiversity and are critical habitats for a variety of marine species throughout various stages of their life cycle. Because of this, fish abundance tends to increase in proximity to these reefs, and where there are fish, there are always fishers. Studies estimate that 50% of federally managed fisheries target fish species which depend on coral reefs for some portion of their life cycle (7).


If the coral reefs were to be removed from the picture, the fisheries would experience an extreme decline in their catch and subsequently a significant loss of revenue. A study by the National Marine Fisheries Service calculated the commercial value of reefs to U.S. fishers to be over $100 million (7). However, this is not the only value associated with coral reefs- tourism is another essential economic driver. Reefs attract visitors from all over the world; when these tourists come to visit the reefs, the money

they spend on food, lodging, and sightseeing helps stimulate the economy. This tourism-based financial facet of coral reefs is estimated to bring in nearly $36 billion globally per year (8). This money flows into the local economy as revenue generated from these reefs, whether directly or indirectly. The presence of coral reefs in the waters of a seaside economy has been proven to stimulate economic growth and help bolster the revenue of tourism and service-based industries while supporting the livelihood of many families. of tourism and service-based industries while supporting the livelihood of many families.

     The physical structure of a coral reef does more than provide a habitat for fish though- it provides critical protection to oceanside cities and towns from storms and hurricanes. Coral reefs buffer shorelines from 97% of the energy from storm surge, wave energy, flooding damage and erosion (9). Because these reefs extend upward from the ocean floor, they protrude into the water column, dissipating wave energy and lowering wave height by 84%. As the waves pass over the reef crest, the wave loses power and becomes weakened before it reaches the shore.


In doing this, the reefs are estimated to prevent a total of $2.7 billion in damage to buildings and cities, and another $2.6 billion in indirect effects associated with flood and storm damage in the U.S. alone (10). If these coastal reefs continue to diminish, we should expect to see 62% more people become directly affected by flooding and a 90% increase in damages to buildings and city structures (10). As climate change intensifies storms and hurricanes, the protection offered by coral reefs becomes exponentially more important. Coral reefs play an invaluable role in protecting coastal communities and the individuals that call them home.

   The first step towards protecting coral reefs is understanding the valuable goods and services they provide for us. Even if you live miles away from the nearest coastline, there is always an invisible web that ties us to the ocean, whether directly or indirectly. We must gain an appreciation for the benefits we reap from the existence of coral reefs: the increased biodiversity, our natural shoreline protection, and the added revenue they provide to oceanside economies. However, understanding the benefits is only the first step down a long road of restoring the underwater ecosystem. When it comes to protecting our world’s coral reefs, it’s critical that we take a three faceted approach; we push for environmental education, resource conservation and coral restoration to really make an impact in our oceans today. 

Images shot by Devon Ledbetter on a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II 


Meet Devon

   Devon Ledbetter is an undergraduate student at the University of Miami interning with Rescue a Reef through their Canon conservation student fellowship. Canon has established a partnership with Rescue a Reef to promote the preservation of the underwater ecosystem. Canon’s philosophy of creating a better future for the next generations became the foundation of this partnership; this collaboration works to further restoration efforts in hopes of leaving future generations with a healthy and sustainable ocean ecosystem.

Check out some of Devon's favorite dive photos here


  1. Vizzuality Coral Reefs. https://resourcewatch.org/dashboards/coral-reefs. Accessed 7 Jun 2022
  2. McIntyre A (2010) Life in the World’s Oceans: Diversity, Distribution, and Abundance. John Wiley & Sons
  3. Coral reef ecosystems | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. https://www.noaa.gov/education/resource-collections/marine-life/coral-reef-ecosystems. Accessed 22 May 2022
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