Why Hawaii Should Invest In Protecting Its Reefs - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Authors

Kim Hum

  Kim Hum is marine program director for The Nature Conservancy, Hawaii and Palmyra.

Michael W. Beck

Michael W. Beck is AXA Chair in Coastal Resilience, University of California Santa Cruz.

A recent paper in Nature Sustainability led by researchers from the University of California Santa Cruz and the U.S. Geological Survey reveals how valuable coral reefs are at protecting people, structures and economic activity in the United States from coastal flooding during storms.

According to the study, Hawaii receives the greatest total economic benefit from reefs of all U.S. states and territories, estimated at $831 million per year in damage protection.

In fact, the economic benefits of flood protection in Hawaii are greater than those in all other regions combined. Flood protection from coral reefs is valued at $394 million per year on Oahu and $375 million per year on Maui.

Healthy coral reefs are the foundation of our nearshore ocean ecosystem and economy. In addition to flood protection, reefs provide $10 million in nearshore fisheries that support local families, and more than $1.6 billion in value to tourism each year — all while supporting the recreational, cultural and spiritual renewal of residents and visitors alike.

But human impacts and a changing climate are creating unprecedented threats to coral reefs here and around the world. Hawaii’s reefs are a valuable and irreplaceable natural asset, and we need to invest in their protection.

According to the study’s authors, funds for reef conservation and restoration are limited, particularly when compared to spending on disaster management. Given the high value of reefs for flood reduction, the study notes that we should be investing in preserving the societal benefits of reefs and ensuring that we can help them recover quickly when they are damaged.

Reef Insurance

The Nature Conservancy has been leading the charge to develop innovative financing approaches for reef protection, including reef insurance. TNC worked in partnership with the state government of Quintana Roo and the local community in the Cancun region of Mexico to develop the world’s first reef insurance policy, purchased in 2019. That policy paid out $850,000 for reef repair after Hurricane Delta hit the region in 2020.

Coral reefs prevent more than $5.3 billion in potential flood damage for U.S. property owners, and most of that benefit is in Hawaii. Pictured is the West Hawaii coastline. Courtesy: Chad Wiggins/THN

Research shows that when reefs are damaged from storms, coastal properties are more vulnerable. For example, when one meter of reef is lost, property damage can double. In 2018, Hawaii was threatened by two Category 3-plus hurricanes, and last July Category 1 Hurricane Douglas came within 30 miles of the state.

Had any of these storms made direct contact with the islands, the resulting economic, structural and societal damage could have been substantial.

TNC recently completed a feasibility assessment for the development of reef insurance in Hawaii and Florida, demonstrating that it could be a viable funding mechanism to repair reefs after a natural disaster.

In fact, state Sen. Chris Lee and Rep. Nicole Lowen introduced a resolution, which has been passed by both chambers of the Hawaii State Legislature, that supports further assessment and recommendations for the development of reef insurance and other natural climate solutions in the islands.

When reefs are damaged from storms, coastal properties are more vulnerable.

As the risks to our reefs and coastal resources increase, so too does our need to develop new strategies to protect and restore them. Reef insurance is a proven source of funding to repair reefs after a natural disaster.

Our study suggests that an investment of just $20,000 per year could lead to a payout of up to $1 million to repair a reef impacted by the storms we know are coming. It is a small price to pay for the peace of mind that comes from knowing we can repair the reefs that provide our food and livelihoods while protecting our homes and businesses across Hawaii.

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About the Authors

Kim Hum

  Kim Hum is marine program director for The Nature Conservancy, Hawaii and Palmyra.

Michael W. Beck

Michael W. Beck is AXA Chair in Coastal Resilience, University of California Santa Cruz.

Latest Comments (0)

I agree with the article, except this ridiculous statement "when one meter of reef is lost, property damage can double."

TAQ · 1 year ago

Informative article!  Kudos to Representatives Chris Lee and Nicole Lowen for successfully introducing a resolution to the Hawaii State Legislature that recommends reef insurance and research to protect Hawaii's reefs.  

4Kaneohe · 1 year ago

Assess a surcharge on those coastal properties and/or force them to accept that they are totally at risk from storm damage, including "no rebuild". People who want to own a piece of shoreline need to accept the inherent risks thereof.

pull · 1 year ago

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