Everybody would agree that coral reefs are beautiful, that they attract tourists that want to snorkel and dive to sneak a peek at an unknown world of colors and fishes. But reality is that many people don’t know the real value of these beautiful ecosystems that in fact, provide a priceless number of services to us humans.
The Caribbean region is home to the world’s second biggest reef barrier, the Mesoamerican Reef Barrier, which was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1996. This reef stretches over 1,000 km from Isla Contoy – at the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico- down to Belize, Guatemala and the Bay Islands of Honduras.
Coral Reefs as service providers
The most obvious service that coral reefs provide is related to the tourism sector, which is one of the main contributors to Caribbean economies. Bahamas, Belize, Jamaica, Barbados or the Dominican Republic rely heavily on tourism to create jobs and generate income. In Belize for example, although agriculture is the main economic sector, tourism has become the largest contributor to GDP and the largest source of foreign exchange for the country. Tourism in Belize currently generates about US$200 million in expenditures per year, representing about 17% of GDP and most of the tourism in Belize is directly linked to its reef barrier, as tourists come from all over the world to see the country’s marine wonders.
A delicate protection shield
Reefs also act as natural barriers, protecting coastal assets and ecosystems acting as buffers against waves, storms and floods, helping to prevent loss of life, property damage and erosion, thereby protecting coastal dwellings, agricultural land and beaches.
Reefs are also a rich source of biodiversity: they are home to approximately 25% of all marine fish species, which is extremely important for fishermen communities who rely on the fishes from the reefs to secure their income.
From an economic perspective, the value of all these services, including primary loss in productivity of fisheries, coastal protection, tourism and others, has been estimated in US$5-11 billion per year. for a region such as the Caribbean this is of enormous importance.
An endangered treasure
The bad news is that estimates show that about 20% of the world’s coral reefs have been effectively destroyed in the last few decades and an additional 20% or more are severely degraded, particularly in the Caribbean Sea and Southeast Asia. Some of these damage is due to natural causes but unfortunately anthropogenic sources are gaining relevance. Also, these ecosystems have been identified as highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, to the extent that even though impacts may vary across regions and localities, it is virtually certain that these will be overwhelmingly negative. Thermal stresses, low adaptive capacity of coral reef systems together with small variations in sea surface temperatures are projected to increase the frequency of coral bleaching and morbidity.
The negative effects of these climate change related impacts will put reefs under additional stress as they are already experiencing anthropogenic stressors such as population growth, over-fishing and pollution increase, which are also likely to increase.
In this context the IDB is engaging in coral preservation and restoration programs in order to protect the reefs that still stand and improve the quality of those that have been damaged. A program to identify climate resilient coral species and suitable culture techniques as well as implementing actual applied adaptation interventions to restore damaged parts of the Mesoamerican reef has been launched hoping to preserve this natural (and economic) treasure.
Find out more information about the project here.