Willing to pay for living coral reefs?
Professor John Agard, tropical island ecologist and IPCC author on Small Island States, shared the information that TT visitors to reefs are willing to pay a premium to visit protected living coral reefs.This came as part of his feature presentation to the launch of the International Year of the Reef TT chapter on World Oceans Day, June 8. In his address, Professor Agard referred to a surprising discovery in Dr Jahson Alemu I’s recent PhD study: “…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 (USD $72) is greater than international visitors (USD $61). … 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!”
In Trinidad and Tobago, a core group of scientists and organisations acting voluntarily under the banner International Year of the Reef – T&T (IYORTT), formed a coalition in support of coral reefs. Their broad objectives include: to increase awareness; to engage with partners – especially the corporate sector, government, academia and civil society organisations – towards consciousness; and to foster conservation and management strategies and sustainable use of coral reefs around the islands. As the mean ocean temperature rises with climate change, there have been mass coral bleaching events (the living organisms die off or migrate leaving white skeletal forms) around the world; three in all have caused the ocean scientists alarm. Their organisation, the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), has declared three International Years of the Reef, to mark these crises, 1997, 2008 and this year 2018.
The aim is for Trinidad and Tobago to be accepted as a member of ICRI; by requesting membership (through the office of the relevant Minister of Government) and demonstrating commitment to the goals of awareness, collaboration and conservation. It is an ambitious plan by a core group of scientists hoping to ignite the interest and enthusiasm of a population that does not yet understand the relationship or the value of the marine environment to the people.
Dr Ahmad Khan, Director of the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) reflected on changes in the reefs of Tobago: “I was fortunate to dive Tobago’s reefs when they were first mapped by the IMA in the 1980s. I also had the privilege to visit the coral reefs in the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Indian Ocean in 1989. The reefs of Tobago in the 1980s were comparable to the pristine reefs in the Indian Ocean and to other reefs I visited in other areas of the Caribbean. What set Tobago’s reefs apart from those in the rest of the Caribbean has always been the diversity of coralline species and the fish and shellfish they support. Tobago’s reefs in the 1980s were always amazing to visit … (Today) life on the coral reefs of Tobago no longer look any different to the reefs stretching from Barbados to St Maarten.”
Later, coral reef ecologist Jahson Alemu I coordinated viewing of coral reefs using the VR goggles. He had recruited a band of volunteers who showed guests how to mount the goggles over smartphones loaded with views of coral reefs in different oceans around the world.
Cocobel Chocolates contributed an unusual and fun part of the evening. The Cocobel Coral Reef Collection, edible sculptures in dark and white chocolate were auctioned for awareness and fund-raising. What do coral reefs and chocolate have in common? They are both endangered by climate change. As temperature and soil conditions change in the tropical and sub-tropical regions, Theobroma cacao (native to tropical regions of the Americas) may be better suited to other regions.
The story would not be complete without paying tribute to the collaborative, supportive and cohesive effort of the group which planned and executed the launch; and which will continue to make inroads among the corporate, community and commercial sectors. Among the organizers and contributors are SpeSeas, Wild Tobago, Institute of Marine Affairs, The UWI, UTT, Buccoo Reef Trust, T&T Field Naturalists’ Club, Atlantic LNG Company of T&T and Excellent Stores.
There are hundreds of ways that individuals and organizations can contribute to this initiative, and IYORTT hopes that the experiences shared on World Oceans Day are the beginning of greater appreciation for coral reefs.