The quest to identify sustainable long-term funding for marine conservation

“Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled” – Howard Stevenson

On February 9 – 10th, Georgia Aquarium and the Property & Environment Research Center (PERC) will host a workshop, “Market Approaches to Coral Reef Restoration: Investigating the Viability,” to explore how voluntary agreements between reef users, conservationists, government, and private businesses might improve the stewardship and restoration of Florida’s coral reefs.  The workshop will bring together approximately 30 professionals from stakeholder groups including the Coral Restoration Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund, Forest Trends, Nature Conservancy, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Miami, University of South Florida, Keys-based diving, snorkeling, and fishing operators, a global cruise line, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among others.

This workshop is an important milestone in a project that I first conceived in January 2011 to apply concepts of property rights and markets to provide sustainable long-term financial support for coral reef restoration and conservation.

In the US and much of the rest of the world, natural resources are usually “priced” based on their extraction value, for example how much a forest can be sold for as timber, and not based on the value of the “services” provided as an ecosystem, for example as a carbon sink or home to wildlife.  Recently, the concept of “payment for ecosystem services” (PES) or “marine payment for ecosystem services” (MPES) has been developed to put a price on the “missing market(s)” aspect(s) of the nonmarket benefits that society derives from nature (e.g. food and water, climate regulation, waste processing and aesthetics).

As the Walker Conservation Fellow at the Georgia Aquarium, I am leading the effort to explore the feasibility of developing an MPES program in the Florida Keys to make coral reef conservation self-financing and economically sustainable.  The Coral Restoration Foundation has been on the cutting edge of developing coral nursery techniques and actively testing the outplanting of corals to degraded natural reefs.  In 2009, The Nature Conservancy teamed with the Coral Restoration Foundation and other project partners on a three-year grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to  expand on  restoration work already underway (see for details  Coral nurseries established through the ARRA grant have proven to be highly successful at producing significant amounts of coral tissue for species that are threatened (e.g. Coral Restoration Foundation has over 20,000 staghorn and elkhorn corals in their nurseries).

Traditionally, such investments in conservation have been made through grants.  Unfortunately, grants are time-limited.  The ARRA grant ends by December 2012, and it is unclear what will happen to the nurseries established. To solve the challenge of inconsistent cash flows provided by grants and address long-term coral restoration and ecosystem recovery, I am evaluating how to develop competitive markets for coral conservation drawing upon a variety of techniques not traditionally applied to the marine environment.  Rather than being paid for extracting something out of a reef (e.g. tropical fish for the ornamental aquarium trade), I am working to establish a cash flow model to make money from putting coral back onto the reef through ecological restoration projects.  My conversations with more than 200  people worldwide about the idea of valuing ecosystem benefits that coral provides to the marine environment have revealed enthusiasm and even excitement about the MPES approach.

The workshop will provide the opportunity to explore a number of approaches from the very different perspectives of the wide-ranging stakeholder groups.  Following the workshop, I will complete a detailed feasibility analysis of several potential cash flow models.

For live action of the workshop discussion, check the Twitter feeds @BrettWHowell @para_sight and @PERCtweets between February 9-10.  If the idea of applying property rights to environmental protection is of interest to you, checkout PERC’s 2012 Enviropreneur Institute, which is currently accepting applications (

Staghorn coral outplanted by Coral Restoration Foundation in Florida ©Tim Grollimund