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Making Waves: Episode 86 (October 27, 2011)

You're listening to Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. I'm Troy Kitch.

Did you know that coral reefs rival rainforests in the amount of biodiversity they support? Thousands of different kinds of creatures rely on them for survival.

They're also among the oldest ecosystems on the planet. And even though individual coral polyps are really tiny, these little creatures build structures over hundreds and even thousands of years that can grow so large that they're visible from space.

Here are some other points to ponder. Coral ecosystems feed millions of people. They protect coastlines from storms and erosion. And the provide jobs and income to millions of people from fishing, recreation, and tourism.

So how do you place a value on this? Most of us would probably agree that corals are good to have around and beautiful to look at, but how would we quantify the economic value of coral reefs?

Well, a new NOAA study that focused on the value of coral reefs around the main Hawaiian islands did just that. How did the study arrive at a dollar value of the reefs around the main islands of our 50th state? In effect, they asked you. 

The study is based on a scientifically-developed national Internet survey of more than 3,200 households – that's a representative sample of all U.S. residents. The survey included a sampling of everyone, not just Hawaiians or coastal dwellers. 

And here's the bottom line: American people have expressed that the annual total economic value they hold for the coral reefs of the main Hawaiian Islands is $33.57 billion dollars.

Here's how the study arrived at that result. From June through October 2009, the web-based survey allowed the public to express its preferences and values for protection and restoration of the coral reef ecosystems around the main Hawaiian Islands. The study focused on total economic value. That includes passive use values -- things like the willingness to pay to protect the coral reef ecosystem for future generations. And it includes direct-use values -- things like snorkeling over a coral reef or eating fish that are supported by coral reef ecosystems.

The study team presented survey participants with two specific measures to protect and restore coral reef ecosystems. One measure aimed at reducing negative effects to coral ecosystems from fishing, and another to repair reefs damaged by ships.

A panel of independent university and private scientists, from both Hawaii and the continental US, provided facts to the survey design team about the Hawaiian coral reef ecosystems and provided estimates of how the coral reef ecosystems would change in response to the two possible management options. This background was used to develop descriptions and illustrations to give survey respondents a clear understanding of what they were being asked to value and how the ecosystems would change as a result of these two types of protection measures.

So why would we want to place a dollar value on how the American public values coral reefs around the Hawaiian islands?

Well, this is really important to know for decision makers to help weigh the benefits and costs of NOAA's investments to protect coral reef ecosystems. Knowing the total economic value for coral reefs is vital in estimating the benefits of restoring the ecosystem and in damage assessment cases where the State or Federal governments sue responsible parties for damages to the coral reef ecosystems.

Now it's important to point out that there are no plans to increase no-fishing zones around the Main Hawaiian Islands based on this study. This study valued the predicted changes in the goods and services provided by the coral reef ecosystems, not the management strategy. In other words, this study is a science product, not a policy or management product.

The main Hawaiian Islands consist of eight volcanic islands that range in age from active lava flows on the east side of the Big Island to seven million-year-old Kauai. Despite their economic significance, reefs near urbanized areas, such as Honolulu, Wailuku, and Kahului, have experienced increasing stress from ever-increasing population pressures.

The national survey was funded by NOAA and the National Science Foundation, and was part of a larger effort to address the issue of Internet bias. The survey was conducted through two Internet panels; one recruited participants using controlled random digit dialing telephone surveys and the other using standard U.S. Bureau of the Census methods of randomly selecting households and going to each household to recruit participants via face-to-face interviewing.

Check our show notes for links to the full study if you'd like to learn more. And take some time to visit our website this week at This wasn't the only coral news coming out of the NOAA this week, so if you're a coral fan ... you won't want to miss it.

And that's all for this episode. If you have any questions about this week's podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean, send us an email at

This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.  See you in two weeks.