Raising Awareness of the Value of Coral Reefs by Jalen Gibbs

The Hawaiian Islands are known for their many natural wonders.    Among the most popular are the 410,000 acres of coral reefs surrounding the islands.[1]  These reefs provide a variety of ecosystem services that we depend on.   If you are a fan of seafood, the coral reefs are the reason you enjoy fish, crustaceans, bivalves, and everything in between.  Other valuable resources include raw materials and items with medicinal qualities. In fact, extracts from reef life such as sponges, sea horses, and sea hares have been vital for the production of several antiviral and anticancer drugs since the 1980s.[2]  Moreover, coral reefs protect coastal environments by absorbing the energy of oncoming waves, and are capable of nitrogen fixation and carbon dioxide production. On the socio-cultural side, coral reefs are high economic value ecosystems as they are popular destinations for fisherman and ecotourists.[3]  A 2002 census produced an estimate stating Hawaii receives approximately 200,000 divers and 3 million snorkelers every year.  Between the 100 dive and snorkel operators, annual income is between $50 and $60 million.[4] As of 2018, numbers have increased to approximately 356,000 yearly divers generating more than $500 million in annual income![5]

However, ecotourism of the Hawaiian reefs does have its drawbacks.  Reckless tourists can cause severe damage to coral reefs by trampling coral and algae, stirring up sediment, and leaving trash within the reef.[6]   Additionally, the average tourist will explore the reef covered in sunscreen or suntan lotion.   The chemicals in these substances decrease fertility and cause birth defects in many marine organisms including corals, algae, fish, urchins, and dolphins.[7]  The challenge posed in this situation is reducing the probability of reef damage by tourists.

In 2002, the Hanuama Bay Nature Preserve became a case study to draft and implement a solution.  This marine protected area receives a million tourists a year.  Researchers constructed an educational center requiring all tourists visiting the reefs to watch a 9-minute video detailing the value of the reefs, the need for conservation, and how to responsibly explore them without reckless damages.  Economic and spatial analyses in subsequent years revealed the center is vital in preventing further decreases in coral cover and increasing annual revenue.[8] While the center is successful, additional action is required to ensure further protection from reef damage.

A possible additional solution that was never implemented was a penalty for reef damage. The original proposal was a fine for large scale damage using economic valuation to determine the value. However, the idea was disregarded due to the inability to determine a reasonable fine price.[9]  A fine for damaging the reef is a sound strategy, since some tourists are entitled to the point where they feel they can get away with violating regulations and disregarding public property. Inducing a penalty will keep troublesome individuals in check and provide incentives for tourists to educate themselves on responsible visits to natural ecosystems.  Penalties have been imposed in the past. The state of Florida passed the Coral Reef Protection Act (CRPA) in 2009.  The CRPA bases fines off of area of damaged reef. One square meter of damaged reef costs $150. Damaging between 1 and 10 square meters will cost $300 per square meter.  Ten square meters or more will cost $1,000 per square meter.[10]

A major challenge in applying a similar solution in Hanauma Bay is finding something to base the charges off of. Sticking to area-based penalties can be difficult due to the required time for area estimates.  Instead of extrapolating to large scale damage, it may be more sensible to use the prices for booking reef snorkels or diving charters. For example, if the cost of a particular charter is $75 per person, charging an additional 50% for damage is a logical step to take.  Fining a multiple of these base prices will not only be high enough for tourists to notice, but also proceeds from these fines can be put towards expanding the capabilities of conservation and the center constructed in 2002.  Target goals for the center could involve an online reef preservation course required by all tourists planning on participating in reef excursions.


Footnote citations

[1] Moberg, F. and Folke, C. (1999) Ecological Goods and Services of Coral Reef Ecosystems. Ecological Economics (29) 2: 215-33.

[2] Bruckner, A. (2019, July 09). Life-Saving products from coral reefs. Retrieved February 24, 2021, from https://issues.org/p_bruckner/

[3] Moberg, F. and Folke, C. (1999) Ecological Goods and Services of Coral Reef Ecosystems. Ecological Economics (29) 2: 215-33.

[4] TEEBcase by P. v. Beukering and H. Cesar (2010) Recreational value of coral reefs, Hawaii, available at: TEEBweb.org

[5] Diver, C. (2018, August 18). Hawaii dive Association completes first scuba Diving economic impact study. Retrieved February 24, 2021, from https://californiadiver.com/hawaii-dive-association-completes-first-scuba-diving-economic-impact-study/

[6] IBID

[7] NOAA, US Department of Commerce, N. (2018, November 01). Sunscreen chemicals and coral reefs. Retrieved February 12, 2021, from https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/news/sunscreen-corals.html

[8] TEEBcase by P. v. Beukering and H. Cesar (2010) Recreational value of coral reefs, Hawaii, available at: TEEBweb.org

[9] IBID

[10] F. (2009). Florida’s coral Reef Protection Act. Retrieved February 24, 2021, from https://floridadep.gov/sites/default/files/coral-reef-protection-052016.pdf

6 thoughts on “Raising Awareness of the Value of Coral Reefs by Jalen Gibbs

  1. Hey Jalen! I’m ashamed to say that I hardly ever think about the coral reefs – I can count on one hand the number of times I have been to the ocean, and I have yet to visit a coral reef, so thank you for bringing them to my attention. I was curious about what other things were being done to save them, and found a competition sponsored by National Geographic that fished for creative solutions. Some of the things proposed were incredibly creative: installing floating shades to shield the reefs from sunlight that exacerbates bleaching, pumping cool water from the deep ocean to cool habitats, growing baby corals in labs to then implant into the reefs, or using genetic engineering techniques like CRISPR to make the coral more heat-resistant (for the full article and other ideas, click here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/australia-great-barrier-reef-coral-bleaching-conservation-competition-spd). I’m not sure how sustainable any of those solutions are – as you point out, reducing sunscreen usage and focusing on tourist impact seems like it could be most effective.

  2. Hi Jalen, thanks for this intriguing blog! I love learning more about coral reef protection from a fellow ocean enthusiast. It seems like the Hanuama Bay Nature Preserve has largely focused on educational measures rather than implementing the fines or charter costs that you propose. In addition to the incredible biodiversity that depends on coral reef health, I would think that seasoned divers have a self-serving interest in preserving these beautiful ecosystems too. However, I think tourist fines would be incredibly difficult and costly to enforce. I wonder if Hawaii can ban certain chemical sunscreens altogether from entering its borders, similar to its bans on foreign wildlife and other imports? Your blog also shows how MPAs play an important role in preserving marine spaces through preventing further coral degradation and increasing local revenue.

  3. Great blog post Jalen! Coral reefs are definitely a vital part of ocean ecosystems and they need to be protected and conserved. I think that educational programs, like the nine minute video for tourists you mentioned, are key for ensuring that visitors to coral reefs understand the importance of conserving reefs. I wonder if areas that are becoming damaged by tourists should be restricted and protected in order to allow coral populations to regenerate. Do you know if any such programs exist in the area? It definitely seems difficult, since there are so many tourists that visit Hawaii for its natural beauty every year. If you would like to learn more about coral reefs, I recommend the documentary “Chasing Coral.” It talks about the health of the Great Barrier Reef and the importance of coral reefs in general.

  4. I loved the blog post! I participated in Duke in Australia my freshman summer and we spent a few classes talking about the coral reefs. We also went on a snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef, so it was great to bring those memories up again. As students studying the reefs, we took many precautions to avoid damaging them such as avoiding sunscreens and avoiding water that was too shallow. However, I can imagine how disastrous it could be for uninformed participants to go swimming in the coral reefs. I think it’s important that the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve required tourists to watch a video because it will allow people to take more precautions and tourists should know details about the nature they are viewing. Although a fine can be a good way to disincentivize people from purposely damaging the reefs, I think education is a better proactive tool. Ideally, all companies would require an educational component as part of their snorkeling package and teach participants how to enjoy the coral reefs without damaging them. The success of the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in preserving the reefs while also maintaining revenues can incentive other areas to do the same. Coral reefs are an amazing sight filled with many diverse species; thus, it is important we protect them for the survival of many species and future viewers.

  5. Thank you so much for this great blog post, Jalen. As a lover of the ocean and coral reefs it really resonated with me. I think one of the most interesting issues around coral reefs is sunscreen. As you said there are chemicals in many sunscreens that are very harmful to the reefs. I know that hawaii recently issued a ban on these “not reef safe” sunscreens. I googled and it looks like some other places have implemented a ban or at least proposed one on sunscreens that contain these harmful chemicals. Interestingly Australia, home of the famous great barrier reef, has not implemented a ban. I wonder if this is because of their history with skin health issues because of the ozone hole. I think it should be a much more widespread policy to ban these types of sunscreens as I have used many reef-safe sunscreens and really can’t tell any difference. I hope that governments can implement bans of this type more and if they can maybe incorporate some small incentive for sunscreen companies to stop the production of sunscreens that contain these chemicals.


  6. Great post Jalen! I became scuba certified a few years ago literally just to see a coral reef before they either disappeared or degraded past recognition. I was chiefly concerned about less individual risks and more endemic threats to coral such as bleaching. Bleaching happens primarily as a result of ocean acidification which is itself directly a product of climate change and chemical emissions. It’s always interesting to observe how incredibly linked nature is, and that the unintended consequences of so many actions can have severe implications. I find it especially frustrating that in the face of an impending biodiversity crisis, much of coral damage comes from individual carelessness. To that end, the point about education really resonated with me; since all it took personally for me to want to protect coral was to see pictures of reefs and learn about how they are being damaged.


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