Coral and fish in Maui’s ocean (photo attribution: Alfonsin11, [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Coasts around the world are threatened by land-based pollutants, including sewage, which affect water quality, coastal habitats and human experiences. To capture the value people place on the coastal environment, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa ecological economist Kirsten L.L. Oleson and student Marcus Peng recently published a study in the journal Ecological Economics. The study, “Beach Recreationalists’ Willingness to Pay and Economic Implications of Coastal Water Quality Problems in Hawaiʻi,” found that improvements in coastal environmental conditions could result in large benefits for beach users on Oʻahu, in some cases valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. This could justify increased spending on management and restoration.

Putting a dollar value on environmental quality

“Quantifying the economic value of coastal water quality can help to inform policy decisions that impact the coast and help justify expenditures in water-quality improvements,” says study lead author Peng, formerly a master of science student in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources who is now pursuing his PhD in economics at UH Mānoa.

In a survey administered to 263 beach users across Oʻahu, Peng and Oleson surveyed participants’ willingness to pay for environmental attributes at different levels of quality. They asked about reducing the number of days a year when the bacterial count in the water exceeds safety standards, and increasing water visibility distance, coral reef cover and the number of different fish species. While beach users cared about all of these, their strongest preferences were for water clarity and bacterial quality improvements.

A growing problem

Coastal water is a critical habitat for many marine species and is the basis for many important economic activities, including tourism, coastal recreation and fishing, as well as property values. The article argues that water-quality degradation presents real and serious costs to the environment and human welfare, and in destinations important for beach tourism, like Hawaiʻi, it could threaten an industry contributing trillions of dollars to the global gross domestic product.

In light of recent and repeated water-quality warnings and beach closures, echoing the serious and prolonged sewage spill in 2006, it is important that decision-makers recognize the significant value of the coastline and the serious harm to the economy that takes place when natural resources are poorly managed or neglected. This is especially true in a state heavily reliant on its natural resources for recreation and tourism.

Oleson emphasized, “Reducing human impact on our environment is an investment that benefits society and supports and sustains our quality of life.”