Value of Reefs

healthy reef

Coral reefs support a high diversity of life and number of fish and other reef species. Photo © Konstantin Tkachenko/Marine Photobank

Healthy coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and economically valuable ecosystems on the planet, providing important services to human communities.

Coral reefs provide the spawning and nursery grounds that economically important fish populations need to thrive. Coral reefs help to protect coastal communities from storm surges and erosion from waves, both of which are likely to increase in the face of sea-level rise. Coral reefs provide millions of jobs to local people through tourism, fishing, and recreational activities. Coral reefs are also the Earth’s “medicine cabinet.” Many medicines have been derived from coral reef organisms, including antiviral drugs Ara-A and AZT and the life-saving anticancer agent Ara-C. Thousands of other useful compounds may still be undiscovered, however, their discovery depends on the survival of reefs. Additionally, coral reef ecosystems are important sites of cultural heritage in many regions of the world, and cultural traditions for millions of people are intimately tied to coral reefs.

It is critical to communicate to stakeholders why coral reefs are valuable ecosystems and are in need of protection and management. Not only are coral reef ecosystems biologically rich and a source of natural beauty, they provide countless services to the coastal communities they support. If a coral reef is degraded or destroyed, the services it once provided will be reduced or eliminated, possibly forever.

Importance of Coral Reef Ecosystems

The information presented in the following tabs below may be useful when speaking with different stakeholder groups to highlight the importance of coral reefs and motivate actions to protect these ecosystems.

Palauans talk about coral reef tourism and its importance to Palau’s economy.

  • Coral reef ecosystems support a variety of human needs. They are important for subsistence, fisheries, tourism, shoreline protection, and yield compounds that are important in the development of new medicines.
  • At least 500 million people rely on coral reefs for food, coastal protection, and livelihoods. ref
  • Over 275 million people worldwide live in the direct vicinity of coral reefs (within 30 km of reefs and less than 10 km from the coast), and approximately 850 million people live within 100 km of coral reefs. ref
  • In developing countries, coral reefs contribute about one-quarter of the total fish catch, providing food to an estimated one billion people in Asia alone. ref
  • Coral reefs form natural barriers that protect nearby shorelines from the eroding forces of the sea, thereby protecting coastal dwellings, agricultural land and beaches. More than 150,000 km of shoreline in 100 countries and territories receive some protection from reefs. ref
  • Coral reefs are the medicine chests of the 21st century, with more than half of all new cancer drug research focusing on marine organisms. ref Coral reefs have been used in the treatment of cancer, HIV, cardiovascular diseases, ulcers, and other ailments.
  • Coral reefs are among the oldest ecosystems on Earth.
  • Coral reefs support a phenomenal diversity of species and provide irreplaceable sources of food and shelter to many fish species, including juvenile fish. Tropical rainforests play a similar role on land.
  • Coral reefs exceed rainforests in their diversity. ref
  • Although coral reefs cover less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, they are home to 25% of all marine fish species. ref
  • Coral reefs support approximately 4000 species of fish and 800 types of corals. ref
  • Corals are an integral part of the reef; they are the foundational species that provide reef structure. Corals are especially vulnerable to human activities and to climate-related threats.
  • Corals have shown remarkable resilience through major climate events and sea level changes, giving hope for their continued survival.
  • Most coral reef dependent countries and territories are small island states, located mainly in the Pacific and the Caribbean. ref


Natural ecosystems provide a number of services that benefit people directly. For coral reefs, these ecosystem services include fish production, shoreline protection, and opportunities for tourism and recreation. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment analyzed the consequences of ecosystem change for human wellbeing, and identified four categories of ecosystem services:

  1. Provisioning (e.g., subsistence and commercial fisheries attained from healthy reefs)
  2. Regulating (protection of beaches and coastlines from storm surges and waves)
  3. Cultural (tourism and recreation)
  4. Supporting (nursery habitats)

The economic value associated with ecosystem services can be derived in a number of ways, including estimating the costs of replacing a particular service with an alternative, such as installing a breakwater to replace coastal ecosystems that offered shoreline protection in the past. On-going efforts to assign economic value to nature are revealing new opportunities to manage our environment for more sustainable use and longer-term prosperity. Below are a few key points about the economic value of coral reefs:

  • Coral reefs provide an estimated $352,000/ha/yr based on their values (e.g., recreation, fish habitat, coastal protection from storms). ref
  • The value of coral reefs globally is $9.9 trillion USD. ref
  • At least 94 countries and territories benefit from reef tourism. In 23 of these, reef tourism accounts for more than 15 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). ref
  • People the world over visit coral reefs to enjoy the recreational activities provided by coral reefs, including SCUBA diving, snorkeling, and glass-bottom-boat viewing. ref
  • In one estimate, the total net benefit per year of the world’s coral reefs is $29.8 billion. Tourism and recreation account for $9.6 billion of this amount, coastal protection for $9.0 billion, fisheries for $5.7 billion, and biodiversity for $5.5 billion. ref
  • The global costs of coral bleaching are calculated to range from $20.0 billion (a moderate bleaching scenario) to over $84.0 billion (a severe bleaching scenario). ref
  • The contribution to employment of a healthy Great Barrier Reef to Australia’s economy is estimated at 53,800 full time jobs. ref

For more information and tools for communicating the value of coral reefs see the Communication section of this Module.


Towards Reef Resilience and Sustainable Livelihoods: A handbook for Caribbean coral reef managers; Chapter: Ecosystem Services and their Value (pdf, 31M)

Reefs at Risk Revisited (pdf, 6.4M)

NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program: Value of Coral Ecosystems

Economic Values of Coral Reefs, Mangroves, and Seagrasses: A Global Compilation (pdf, 803k

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Last updated May 1, 2017

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