July 2018

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Feature address by Professor John Agard at the International Year of the Reef Trinidad & Tobago launch, on World Oceans Day, June 8, 2018

World Oceans Day. Why should we care? Well, because the oceans cover about 70% of the earth. They are also the source of 80% of the air we breathe and the world's largest source of protein. So, human beings can’t survive without the ecosystem services that the oceans provide. It therefore makes perfect sense for us to protect the oceans and the life in it.

Unfortunately, the evidence so far is that we are not doing a good job, as almost 40% of the oceans are impacted by pollution from land, and millions of marine creatures have died from ingesting or being entangled in plastic waste. So in line with this year’s Worlds Ocean Day theme of preventing plastic pollution and encouraging solutions for a healthy ocean, I challenge you to stop using disposable plastic bags, bottles and straws to help save our Oceans.

Using Tobago as an example, most people don’t realise the high value of the ecosystem service benefits provided by coral reefs to the economy. That is why these values are frequently overlooked or underappreciated in coastal investment, development and policy decisions, resulting in short-sighted decisions that do not maximize the long-term economic potential of coastal areas.

The extent of this started to dawn on me as an undergraduate student of the late coral reef biologist Professor Julian Kenny at UWI; and later working along with my recently deceased friend Richard Laydoo on our first job at IMA when we were in our 20s. He spent those years surveying and mapping the reefs of Tobago. He was the hard-bottom coral reef specialist and I was the soft-bottom benthic ecologist. The real eye-opener, though, came many years later with the key work done in Tobago by Laureta Burke from the World Resources Institute in the Reefs at Risk Project done along with IMA. So here is what she found:

Tourism and Recreation

The valuation focused on tourists visiting at least in part due to coral reefs, estimated at 40% of visitors to Tobago. Direct economic impacts from visitor spending on accommodation, reef recreation, and miscellaneous expenditures in 2006 were estimated at US$ 43.5 million. At the time, this comprised 15% of GDP in Tobago.

But there were additional indirect economic impacts, driven by the need for goods to support tourism (such as boats, towels and beverages) and they contributed another US$ 58–86 million to the national economy in Trinidad and Tobago. The resulting combined direct and indirect impacts from coral reef associated tourism amounted to an estimated US$ 101–130 million for Tobago.

The study also produced rough estimates of two values not currently captured within the economy. These include the annual value of local residents’ use of the reefs and coralline beaches—estimated at US$ 13–44 million in Tobago—as well as consumer surplus from reef recreation (i.e. the additional satisfaction derived by participants above what they paid for dive and snorkel trips). Consumer surplus was estimated at $1 million for Tobago.

Recently my new teacher Dr Jahson Alemu and recent PhD student advanced my knowledge further on this topic. I am singling out two surprising findings that were marginal to his main mathematical modelling PhD studies on optimising the delivery of ecosystem services from coral reefs.

In his work on evaluating visitor responses to marginal changes in reef quality, he discovered that by linking ecosystem services to the economy, we were able to demonstrate a preference of recreational users for improved coral reef management expressed as willingness-to-pay. The mean willingness-to-pay for improved coral reef ecosystem management by Trinidad and Tobago residents (US $72) is greater than international visitors (US $61). This knowledge is an important factor in determining future management possibilities of coral reefs in Tobago since people apparently accept the idea of payment for ecosystem services (PES). This then is the justification for marine park fees from which the revenues can be used to fund environmental protection. Do you know that there are no Park Rangers patrolling reefs in Tobago? Not even Buccoo Reef!

Another incidental surprising finding is that people prefer seeing a few lionfish on reefs. This is counter to the existing lionfish management strategy to completely remove them. However, recent research suggest that low densities of lionfish are sustainable on a reef and can lead to positive economic effects in enhancing recreational snorkelling and diving.


Coral reef-associated fisheries have a much smaller economic impact, but provide other important values including jobs, cultural value, and a social safety net. The annual direct economic impact of coral reef associated fisheries is estimated at US$ 0.7 – 1.1 million for Tobago. Additional indirect impacts from the need for boats, fuel, nets, etc. were estimated at about US$ 0.1 – 0.2 million for both islands, resulting in a total economic impact of about US$ 0.8 – 1.1 million per year in Tobago. I take this data with a grain of salt because it sounds too conservative to me because no one has yet figured out a way to properly value the nursery function of coral reefs. I am handing solving this problem over to Dr Farahnaz Solomon who is an expert on fisheries biology management and protected areas.

Shoreline Protection

Coral reefs play a vital role protecting the shorelines of Tobago. This project developed an innovative method for estimating the monetary value of coral reefs in protecting the shoreline. It was noted that the erosion rate on the shoreline is less when there is a coral reef offshore and greater when there is not. The difference can then be used to estimate land saved from erosion by coral reefs and the land price in that area can be used to convert land saved into dollars.

It was found that coral reefs contribute to the protection of about 50% of the shoreline of Tobago from wave-induced erosion. The annual value of shoreline protection services due to potentially avoided land erosion damages was estimated to be between US$ 18 and 33 million for Tobago. Further, the importance of coral reefs in protecting the shoreline is expected to continuously increase with rising sea level (currently about 2.7±0.4 mm/year in T&T) and increased storm intensity and possible storm surge associated with warming seas.

Last year’s hurricane season in the Caribbean was a good lesson in the new norm with back to back category 5 hurricanes. The dilemma is that coral reefs protect coastlines from erosion by dissipating the energy of waves while on the other hand they are also extremely sensitive to increasing temperatures from climate change causing coral reef bleaching. Coral reef bleaching can cause death leading to the loss of the valuable ecosystem service of coastal erosion protection. This negative feedback effect affects the vulnerability of people. As the economists have taught me, land value is higher along coastlines occupied by people as opposed to where there are none. Further, as we have described, people get a basket of ecosystem services (e.g. erosion protection, recreation, fisheries) from coral reefs so there is a mutual relationship. Coral reefs protect people and people need to protect coral reefs.

Getting the public at large and the decision makers as well, to understand that relationship and their responsibility is the primary task. I would like to acknowledge the passionate effort of Dr Anjani Ganase in communicating science to broader audiences to influence appreciation and use of the marine world. She writes a weekly column for the Tobago Newsday. Please check wildtobago.blogspot.com. I also want to praise Dr Amy Deacon for her enthusiastic and persistent public outreach efforts as Secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalist Club. Getting volunteers like Amy is how they have managed to operate in T&T since 1891.

What about activating the still in stasis Planning and Facilitation of Development Act (2014) which for the first time in planning law requires that ecological considerations be included before granting planning permission? When will we see the new fisheries legislation which has been in stasis for decades? When will we see Park Rangers patrolling marine protected areas in Tobago? When will we see Park Rangers patrolling marine protected areas in Tobago? When will we see strident enforcement of marine pollution rules?

International Year of the Reef (IYOR): www.iyor2018.org
Trinidad & Tobago IYOR FaceBook : www.facebook.com/IYORTT