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Making Waves: Episode 118 (August 1, 2012)

(sounds of a rainforest)

This is the sound of a rainforest....

(recording of a coral reef 'soundscape' by Erica Staaterman, researcher in the lab of Dr. Claire Paris, University of Miami)

And this ... is the sound of what you might call a 'rainforest of the ocean.' A coral reef.

Like rainforests on land, coral reefs are hotbeds of diversity, home to countless species of plants and animals. We rely on our reefs for many things ... for protection from coastal erosion and storm surge ... for fishing, recreation, and tourism ... and even as a source for the discovery of new bio-medicines.

But, like rainforests on land, reefs are under intense pressure from climate change, pollution, and unsustainable use. Today, about 20 percent of the world’s reefs are damaged beyond recovery. About 40 percent are under risk of collapse.

So what can we do about it? To answer that question, we need to better understand the main threat to our reefs. And that ... would be us. Humans.

This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. I'm Troy Kitch. Today on the program: the social side of protecting coral reefs.

(raise music, fade out)

We're joined by Dr. Peter Edwards, a natural resource economist and social science coordinator for NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program. We began our conversation by talking about what economics and social science have to do with reefs.

[Peter Edwards] "Social and economic conditions are most often times direct indicators of how healthy coral reefs will be. So in places where there is lots of poverty, lots of population, lots of pressures like deforestation and siltation, then the reefs will more than likely be in bad shape. Particularly with respect to things like unemployment you often find heavy fishing, overfishing. But on the converse, in places where things are a little better off, or management measures like Marine Protected Areas are in place, you can definitely see a difference to the health of the reef."

Peter has a unique perspective in this area. He grew up in Jamaica, a place with many reefs that are under intense pressure. He said his current profession as a natural resource economist was a natural progression from his childhood in the Caribbean.

[Peter Edwards] "My father was a land surveyor, so I used to accompany him in summers and so I had a feel for the outdoors and nature. And I also learned to swim at an early age, we went to the beach ... being on a tropical island, spent a lot of time on the coast, so that piqued my interest in the outdoors and animals. In fact, when I was child I wanted to be a vet or work with animals."

Instead of becoming a vet, Peter channeled his love of the outdoors into studying marine science. And during his years of study, he began doing more and more work with public speaking about conserving our natural treasures.

[Peter Edwards] "And that is where my interest [grew] into figuring out how better to get the general public to understand the importance of natural resources. And one of those ways is to come up with economic values. With some people, it’s fine to say ‘save the reef,’ but for policy makers and the general public, sometime if you’re able to say, ‘listen, this thing is actually worth more than just its intrinsic value,’ then that’s when I got interested in that kind of work.”

I asked if this sort of work, called ‘socioeconomics,’ was sometimes a hard sell when working with other scientists who might think the science should just stand on its own ... that people should realize that saving a natural resource like a reef is a good thing, and that’s what scientists and researchers are trying to do. Why should you have to put an economic value on nature?

Peter said the problem is that oftentimes people and policy-makers don’t see the relevance of the science that goes into things like reef research. And, frankly, it’s worth bearing in mind that the reason the reefs are in trouble in the first place is largely because of us humans.

[Peter Edwards] "These critical pieces of the environment would not be threatened if we were not around, or if the pressures weren’t that great. So people make that difference, and that’s why we have to understand why people do the things they do and provide alternatives to them, and that’s where social science comes into play in helping natural resource management. We need to make it relevant to them: disentangle and highlight nature’s benefits and what’s in it for them, because that’s the question that drives most people, ‘What’s in it for me.’ And then transforming that into something that can work in policy.”

And that’s what Peter is doing today. He’s part of an ambitious project now underway to create a national coral reef monitoring plan — the first of its kind at NOAA.

The plan is focused on reefs in ten priority areas around the nation: in Florida and Hawaii, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Part of the effort involves taking biological samples at sites, part involves monitoring climate conditions, and part of the plan is about people ... a multi-year effort to better understand the humans who live near and rely upon these reefs. Peter is leading the social science component of this effort.

[Peter Edwards] "So what that entails is that in all the coral reef jurisdictions, we will be rolling out a set of household surveys. This survey will collect general socioeconomic information from respondents, and then we’ll be asking questions on knowledge about reefs, how people participate with beaches and coastal features associated with coral reefs, among some other general questions. The purpose of this is to collect baseline information across all of the U.S. coral reef territories."

While researchers with NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program have been collecting physical and biological data at these reefs for a long time and while there have even been some small-scale socioeconomic studies at different locations, this long-term social research across all of the U.S. reef jurisdictions is something new.

[Peter Edwards] "So the plan is to, over the next three to four years, target at least two jurisdictions per calendar year, and at the end of that four year period, we will put out some information on people’s perceptions, general statistics on what are people doing, there feelings about different management measures, do they like MPAs, would they like to have more freedom to do things in the ocean, or do they think we should be protecting things more, and so on. So we’ll have a good idea. And then hopefully, subject to funding, we’ll be able to repeat it again so that we begin to monitor these long-term socioeconomic trends."

The surveys will provide a window into how people who live near reefs in the U.S. feel and think about these natural resources, and how they view the different management strategies that are in place to protect their local reefs. Down the road, Peter said that survey data will also help to decide on new kinds of strategies to help protect the reefs ... and how to best communicate to people who live near reefs that these resources need to be protected in the first place.

A big part of this communication piece, he said, is to help people understand that reefs have value.

[Peter Edwards] "There’s a quote that I’m paraphrasing that says if you can’t put a price on nature, then essentially you’re saying that it has no value. And an economist will tell you that if you’re not able to value a resource, it will soon get over-exploited. So, essentially, the end-goal is to demonstrate to the public how these changes in quality of ecosystems affect human well-being. And once we’re able to do that, we can better communicate to the public, make better policy, and help people better make trade-offs, because, in the end, a lot of people are making trade-offs about everything."

In terms of coral reefs, if people understand that what they’re getting from a nearby reef has real value ... then they’re more likely to invest in taking care of that reef. Peter called the different things people get from the reef ‘benefit streams.’

[Peter Edwards] "One of these benefit streams may be recreation. One of these benefit streams from coral reefs may be fishing. Another benefit stream is protection from large storm surges and waves — if you have a healthy coral reef out there, then it’s likely your beachfront property won’t be washed into the ocean because of a healthy reef that’s slowing down the wave energy. And so those are three simple examples of ecosystem services that sometimes you can put a monetary value on. We can use techniques to figure out how valuable a beach vacation or a day of traveling back and forth to the beach is to an individual. And by doing that, we can say to local governments, international governments that this resource is actually worth money and therefore it would behoove you to make sure that it’s preserved. So that’s the general underlying premise. Unfortunately, if you don’t attach a monetary value to some of these resources, then people won’t recognize their actual value and so they will exploit it and not take care of it and then when it’s gone, you realize that you’ve lost something valuable."


Later this year, the Coral Reef Conservation Program will roll out the first of their socioeconomic surveys to areas in southern Florida and American Samoa as part of NOAA’s new national coral reef monitoring plan. This plan is designed to build upon more than a decade of Coral Reef Conservation Program-supported monitoring to better equip scientists, resource managers, and decision makers with the information they need to better protect and conserve our coral reefs for future generations.

Special thanks to Dr. Peter Edwards for joining me today on the show.

By the way, if you thought that audio recording of a coral reef at the opening of the episode was pretty cool, we did do. The recording was made Erica Staaterman who is studying coral reef soundscapes in the lab of Dr. Claire Paris at the University of Miami. If you’d like to learn more about her research, check our show notes for the link.

You’ve been listening to Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service. You can reach us at

We’ll be back with another episode in a few weeks.