Valuing Reef Ecosystem Services

Centering Community Voices to Mitigate Hazards

Kelly Dunning
Auburn University

Publication Date: 2021


Coral reef conservation is a pathway to hazard mitigation that ensures coastal protection of vulnerable communities from hurricanes and provides livelihoods and cultural services. Despite synergistic benefits to their well-being, often referred to as ecosystem services, reefs are experiencing global decline from human causes such as development and climate stress (bleaching). This research examines how we assess policy trade-offs between reef conservation and linked hazard mitigation and unchecked coastal development. Through a systematic review of the literature, it seems that policy trade-offs between development and low-regrets conservation policy (which synergistically mitigates hazards), uses the perspectives of coastal communities only 52% of the time. Often tourists and visitors are the ones who are asked to value coral reefs, not local stakeholders. This is puzzling, because it is local people who depend the most intensely on reefs to protect them from increasing hazards, especially in places with high income inequality and levels of poverty. Additionally, most coral reef valuations focus on the costs and benefits of individualism and do not attempt to employ deliberative methods— which is closer to how humans actually make decisions—that ask groups of stakeholders to meet for structured conversations on policy trade-offs between conservation/mitigation and development. In order to genuinely link coral reef conservation policy and hazard mitigation, research must shift to focus on deliberative group settings that center the voices of communities who stand to lose coastal protection and hazard mitigation services.

This study uses ecosystem services frameworks to study coral reefs and the capacity of conservation policy to enhance coastal resilience. Ecosystem services are the public benefits that humans derive from ecosystem functions and are classified based on how humans derive goods and services (Costanza et al., 19971, 20142; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 20053). They are usually interpreted as production services (e.g., food, fuel, and other materials); regulating functions that maintain essential ecological processes (i.e., climate change mitigation); habitat functions; and informational functions, such as recreation and cultural values (see Table 1) (de Groot et al., 20124). Experts quantify ecosystem service values under different conservation regimes or degradation scenarios to assess (a) the trade-offs of differing stakeholder groups engaged in resource disputes in an intuitive and easy to understand way, (b) values that people place on ecological functions that are not captured by market signals and prices, and (c) the true costs (ecological damages) and benefits (economic growth) of a project (Crossman & Bryan, 20095; de Groot et al., 2012; Westman, 19786).

Table 1. Reef Ecosystem Services by Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Classification*
Provisioning Services (Production functions) Regulating Services (Regulation Functions, Habitat Functions) Supporting Services (Habitat Functions) Cultural Services (Informational Functions)
Fisheries (food) Erosion protection Nursery for juveniles of commercially valuable fisheries Recreation: fishing, diving/snorkeling, general tourism
Raw Materials (coral, sand) Wave attenuation Genetic diversity protection Heritage values (bequest and existence)
Genetic Resources Nutrient cycling Refuge Traditional or religious uses
Nutrient cycling Aesthetics
Scientific research

*Information in parentheses is derived from typologies outlined in de Groot, 2012.

Ecosystem service valuation studies can simplify complex processes by quantifying policy trade-offs between development, conservation, and linked vulnerability (Fisher et al., 20077; Van Beukering & Slootweg, 20108; Van Beukering et al., 20119). Value estimates attempt to make clear where private gain reduces public value of ecosystem services, and values can convince policy makers and stakeholders across local, national, and international scales to place a high priority on conservation (White & Savina, 198710). It stands to reason then that conservation policy (such as protections for coral reefs) fall into what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) classify as low-regrets policies because of their simultaneous capacity for ecological services conservation and their potential to build resilience to current and future climate hazards (IPCC, 201211).

Current Study

A systematic review was conducted to understand to what degree experts engage coastal community members as stakeholders to estimate ecosystem services values. Understanding how stakeholders value ecosystems can unlock a related understanding of the feasibility and popular support for low-regrets policies aimed at ecosystem conservation and linked to the enhancing coastal resilience (the capacity to absorb and rebound from coastal hazards). There has been minimal study of the degree to which stakeholders are actually involved in assessing the value of coral reef ecosystem services. Hearing from communities that depend on ecosystems is especially important in places where marginalized communities depend on reef health for their livelihoods, food security, and coastal protection from hazards. For example, since the 1990s, the reefs of South Florida have undergone repeated climate stresses of bleaching and accompanied mortality, despite many conservation policies protecting reefs. These reefs now have less capacity to buffer these areas from storm surge and erosion. The adjacent communities are characterized by high levels of income inequality and poverty, and for that reason, they will be the first to feel the impacts of decreased tourism or the diminished coastal protection capacity of reefs (Milligan, 201812; Portero, 201913).


Systematic Review

This systematic review used search criteria that resulted in 109 observations from 42 valuation studies on the economic valuation of reef ecosystem services published from 1988 to 2019. Values were examined and coded based on location, year, whether they were aggregations of individual preferences, whether the individuals queried were reef stakeholders (defined as local people who rely on access to the reef for livelihood purposes, subsistence, or cultural reasons), and whether any type of structured conversation with stakeholders took place. Studies needed to have approximately 10 citations to be included in the study, which created a slight bias against older studies. Valuation studies only include locations where there can be stakeholder involvement in reef decision-making, i.e., countries or territories where there have been documented cases of either community-based reef management, democracies that allow stakeholder participation in resource disputes, or both.The systematic review used the Auburn Libraries Database search tool that queries all of its more than 50 licensed databases. Search terms included “coral reef,” “valuation,” and “ecosystem services.” Backwards referencing techniques were used to check references sections for additional coral reef valuation studies, including other systematic or comprehensive reviews primarily drawing on Brander et al. (200714).

Coding Process

Simple descriptive statistics (counts and percentages) were used to review the literature. Papers were grouped according to theoretical concept, such as “shoreline protection” or “tourist valuation of recreational services”. A clear and unexpected pattern emerged between the majority of reef valuation studies—which took aggregate measures of ecosystem services as they accrue to individuals—and what are known as deliberative valuation studies, in which stakeholders and experts come together in a structured, face-to-face discussion to debate, learn about trade-offs, and produce a decision on values such as economic valuation or conservation commonly used in policy making (Sagoff, 199815; Wilson & Howarth, 200216). Deliberative valuation, based on theories of deliberative democracy, assumes that public decisions should not occur as an aggregate of individual cost benefits, but should instead be the product of informed public debate (Costanza et al., 2014; de Groot et al., 2002; Dryzek, 200917; Spash, 200818). Hazards research shows that deliberation and participation enhances resilience (Dunning, 202019; Duxbury & Dickinson, 200720).


Of 109 valuation estimates, 99% were aggregations of reef ecosystem service values that accrued to individuals, 52% included the values of local community stakeholders, and just one percent attempted deliberative valuation. Most of the literature focused on the comparative willingness of tourists (not community members) to pay to visit reefs under different scenarios of environmental quality. Between 2005-2009, however, there was a noticeable change where more studies examined bequest, existence, and other non-use values (grouped into the cultural classification in Figure 1).

Figure 1. Trade-offs Between Ecological Degradation and Four Types of Ecosystem Services

These assessments tend to measure willingness to invest in passing reefs on to grandchildren (bequest value) or to simply exist (existence value). In summary, just over half of the studies on reef ecosystem services elicited values from stakeholders themselves, rarely did any studies use deliberative methods, and nearly all studies used aggregate measures of individual willingness to pay or to accept damages from non-locals (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Local Stakeholder Participation in Reef Valuation Estimates

There were several studies however, that were noteworthy because of the innovative ways in which they went beyond standard survey methods to involve stakeholders. These were studies that (a) had some deliberative group component, even if only in the exploratory stage of the research, (b) had some mechanism to deal with trade-offs across the socio-economic gradients of stakeholders, or (c) had some type of collaborative research component to diminish disagreement over scientific uncertainty.

A few had deliberative components in the exploratory stages. In the 2004 assessment of Samoan reefs, early phases of the household survey design involved groups of local leaders to help generate survey questions that better assessed stakeholder perceptions (Spurgeon, 200421). Ultimately, final values were still calculated using an aggregation of individual preferences. One aspect of Samoan society is a rich collection of social activities around reef access, which would suggest deliberative valuation methods would be a reliable assessment of reef value in cultural context. Such activities include social fishing and catch exchanges where stakeholders derive reef services in groups. Deliberative valuation, therefore, would better reflect patterns of access and the receipt of benefits, and better illustrate vulnerabilities to coastal hazards and the potential of reefs to mitigate those hazards. Van Beukering and colleagues (2011) notes comparable social patterns in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where reef ecosystem services constitute a social activity related to group outings structured around reef-related fishing. Fishing, they argue, must be valued as a social and cultural process.

Other studies had mechanisms to address socio-economic scales of ecosystem service delivery. Bishop and collaborators’ analysis of the economic values of expanding protected marine areas in Hawaii elicited stakeholder values across scales and in a group format using focus groups (Bishop et al., 201122). These approaches conceptualized local Hawaiians as user-stakeholders, but also included U.S. citizens in states such as California and Wisconsin. The innovative approach solved two problems relevant to hazards research that is common in valuation literature. First, different scales of stakeholders with an interest in reefs as public goods are conceptualized as locals, coastal people, and inland people. Second, a purely aggregative analysis of individual values is supplemented with several studies of group preferences. Like the Van Beukering study, the Bishop study of Hawaiian reefs uses bundled sets of policy trade-offs as discrete choices made by a group. To understand policy trade-offs between the synergistic hazards reduction of conservation and the increased vulnerability of development, research should move in this direction. Groups of stakeholder representatives should be asked to evaluate policy trade-offs with a transparent assessment of the hazards that may follow, as well as a more transparent assessment of who is accruing benefits and who is bearing costs.


This research showcases the need for greater inquiry into deliberative methods for valuing ecosystems. Deliberation is a more accurate way of assigning values to ecosystem services for simultaneous progress in conservation and enhancing resilience. This systematic review is only the first step in linking ecosystem services and hazard mitigation. It is not just ecosystem service values that stakeholders must determine collaboratively—preferably through deliberative methods—but researchers must also ask these same stakeholders about trade-offs and feasibility for low-regrets policies that conserve ecosystem services and enhance resilience. Deliberative studies of coral reef values are lacking, as identified in this systematic review. Deliberative methods are necessary however, bringing stakeholders to the table for structured conversations around policy trade-offs. Such conversations better capture the win-win nature of conservation policy and hazard risk reduction. This research showcases the need for greater inquiry into deliberative methods for valuing ecosystems. Deliberation is a more accurate way of assigning values to ecosystem services for simultaneous progress in conservation and enhancing resilience.


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Suggested Citation: Dunning, K. (2021). Valuing Reef Ecosystem Services: Centering Community Voices to Mitigate Hazards. Natural Hazards Center Mitigation Matters Grant Report Series, 2. Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Available at:

Dunning, K. (2021). Valuing Reef Ecosystem Services: Centering Community Voices to Mitigate Hazards. Natural Hazards Center Mitigation Matters Grant Report Series, 2. Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Available at: