Sunken Treasures

Corals make—and save—money in the global economy. Tourism alone generates $186.5 billion in annual revenues from resorts, snorkeling, and scuba diving (albeit not always good for the reefs), and accounts for 50 percent of the GNP in some coastal developing nations. Up to 15 percent of the total worldwide annual fisheries harvest comes from reefs; reef habitats are even more important in locales where seafood is the main source of protein (up to 90 percent for people living in the Pacific Islands). Even in the U.S., where beef, pork, and poultry are more plentiful, commercial reef fishing brings in more than $75 million annually.

Where reefs save money is in the natural ecosystem services they perform: filtering and processing waste and nutrients, making sand for eroding shorelines, and serving as a natural protector for coastlines against waves and hurricanes. A study by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis estimates the annual value of these services to be $174.1 billion.

What we can’t calculate, however, is the untold value of corals to medical science. Researchers have been screening reefs for potential pharmaceutical applications for the past two decades, discovering compounds with anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-carcinogenic, and cardioactive properties. As the reefs die, science loses forever the opportunity to explore these unique beings.