The true value of South Pacific reefs

Can a dollar value reasonably be assigned to reefs in the South Pacific? Not easily, according to a new study published in the Journal of Environment al Management this month. The international team of scientists and managers took stock of recent experience in assessing the economic value of services provided by coral reefs in the South Pacific to assess their relevance and limitations within the specific cultural and social context in the region. “Coral reef ecosystems are important to populations in the South Pacific as they sustain livelihood for fishermen and tourism operators, provide protection from flood events and are an essential source of protein” said Nicolas Pascal, one of the authors of the study. “Putting a dollar value on the services they provide to local communities, thereby showing that coral reefs can bring attractive returns for the local economy, can be a way to convince decision-makers that it is worthwhile to invest into conservation actions and stronger enforcement of regulations, and therefore ensure that their communities can continue to enjoy the benefits they gain from the reefs.”

Dollar values assigned to coral reefs often reflect local socio-economic contexts. The annual services they provide been valued at $972 per hectare in Fiji (international dollar 2009), $609 in New Caledonia and $658 in Vanuatu, whereas this figure reached $3148 in Hawaii and $17,873 in the Northern Mariana Islands. The huge difference in figures has been explained by the differences in level of tourism frequentation, scale of fisheries and population density, which may also explain why, overall, values assigned to reefs in the South Pacific are lower than estimates provided for reefs in other, more densely populated regions such as the Caribbean or South East Asia.

Putting a dollar value on coral reefs, an exercise known as Coral Reef Ecosystems Services Valuation or CRESV, is however particularly tricky in the South Pacific because of its specific cultural factors, particularly the fact that a ‘dollar’ doesn’t resonate the same way in the Pacific as it does in other countries. Many communities in the South Pacific function within so-called ‘community economies’, where commerce and exchanges occur without currency exchange and as a result, people assign little value to money. Instead, they assign value to things than cannot be priced, such as one’s familiarity with a reef, or its role in the identity of the village community. “Another important thing to take into consideration is whether CRESVs really mean anything to policy-makers in the region” continues Pascal. “Up to now, valuation exercises have been mainly used to raise awareness but rarely (at least, not explicitly) to support decisions or to set up an economic instrument, with some remarkable exceptions (the Kiribati government for example, decided to substitute dredging for illegal aggregate mining following an economic study showing the clear benefits of doing so). It is therefore particularly important that economists and decision-makers engage in productive dialogues to ensure that valuation exercises are actually used to make a difference and help the fate of coral reefs in the Pacific”. 

Read the paper: Economic valuation of ecosystem services from coral reefs in the South Pacific: Taking stock of recent experience. Yann Laurans a, Nicolas Pascal, Thomas Binet, Luke Brander, Eric Clua, Gilbert David, Dominique Rojat, Andrew Seidl.