Coral reefs are hugely important to human populations around the world as they provide them with many goods and services, especially in developing countries. It is estimated that more than 100 countries around the world have coastlines with coral reefs and in those countries, tens of millions of people depend on coral reefs for part of their livelihood or as a food source (Salvat, 1992). Coral reefs have huge economic value, with an estimated total global value of US $375m yr-1 (Constanza et al., 1997) as a result of their roles in tourism, fisheries, coastal protection and even the pharmaceuticals industry.
Possibly the largest source of income for human populations via coral reefs comes from tourism. The financial value of tourism in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area was estimated by Driml in 1994 to be AUS $682,000,000 annually and in 1990, Caribbean tourism earned US $8,900,000,000 and employed over 350,000 people (Dixon et al., 1993). Coral reefs have great aesthetic value and attract tourists from around the world simply for their beauty and immense biodiversity.
A variety of seafood products come from coral reefs and approximately 9-12% of the world’s total fisheries are reef-related fisheries (Smith, 1978). The fisheries industry also provides employment for many people living in areas surrounding coral reefs; if coral reefs were to cease to exist, these human populations would suffer from the loss of money generated from the fisheries industry, the absence of the food supply obtained from coral reef ecosystems and also from unemployment.
Coral reefs form walls which enclose lagoons and these protected embayments play an important part in coastal protection; they protect human populations from disasters such as hurricanes and excessive wave and storm damage; without this protection, areas surrounding coral reefs would incur loss of land, due to erosion. In a study by Cesar (1996) in Indonesia, it was estimated that between US $820–1,000,000 per km of coastline was lost due to decreased coastal protection as a result of the destruction of coral reefs (based on 0.2 m year−1 of coast erosion, 10% discount rate and a 25-year period).
Coral reefs also play a part in the pharmaceuticals industry; some seaweeds, sponges, molluscs and corals from coral reef ecosystems have been found to have medical or cosmetic properties, adding even more to their value and importance for human populations.