Protecting A Priceless Natural Asset
Some natural resources are classified as public goods, things that we all share and feel entitled to use for free–for example, our beaches and our reefs. Unfortunately, our reef resources are becoming increasingly scarce public goods.
With a resident population of 1.3 million and 7 million visitors arriving annually, the number of people making demands on Hawaii’s reefs reflects what economists call the tragedy of the commons–too many people trying to get what they want out of the same limited natural resource.
Because Hawaii’s coral reefs are a valuable and essential part of our economy, our lifestyles, and our cultural heritage, we as a community must make difficult choices about who gets what from them. Since the end of the konohiki system, we have allowed a free market philosophy to govern what happens on our reefs. Although our society has instituted rules regarding use of the ocean’s resources, they have proven inadequate, and are oftentimes ignored. As a result, many of our reefs are now severely depleted. Unlike traditional Hawaiians, whose conservation ethic and kapu system allowed them to take only what they needed, we lack effective incentives and adequate compliance with laws to conserve near-shore marine life.
Hawaii’s coral reefs generate more than $350 million of income annually in recreation, fishing, aquarium capture, research, and other uses. By comparison, investment in understanding and regulating the growing demands on our reefs is minimal. Given that our reefs are the natural and economic assets on which our lifestyle and tourist-based economy rely, are we investing enough–and are we investing in the right systems to safeguard these priceless and irreplaceable pieces of our natural heritage?
The choices we make about our unique marine assets will demonstrate our real values. On our reefs, the desire for short-term profits competes with the long-term survival of a natural and cultural asset that must be carefully managed to yield benefits now and for future generations.