Coral Reefs, Fishing, and Tourism: Tensions in U.S. Ocean Law and Policy Reform

29 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2007 Last revised: 3 Feb 2013


In the United States, seven states and territorial jurisdictions have coral reefs: Hawaii, Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Reef-based coastal tourism and recreation provide significant economic benefits to the United States - benefits that generally exceed those of reef-based commercial fisheries.

The coral reef tourism industry requires healthy coral reef ecosystems, and reefs worldwide are in serious trouble. While U.S. coral reefs are subject to a number of anthropogenic stressors, fishing is the one that simultaneously (1) is generally deemed the most damaging to coral reef ecosystems and the biodiversity that makes such reefs attractive to tourists; and (2) has created the most political and legal opposition to coral reef protection. However, a potential win-win solution exists: both scientists and policymakers have recommended the increased use of marine protected areas (MPAs) and marine reserves to protect coral reef ecosystems and their tourism services, a solution that could simultaneously improve reef-based fisheries.

Increased use of MPAs and marine reserves requires a legal basis for setting aside areas of the ocean and restricting fishing therein, preferably with some sort of policy priority for protecting marine biodiversity. U.S. law and policy provides a number of legal mechanisms for creating MPAs but creates no clear policy in favor of coral reef - or marine biodiversity more generally - preservation and protection. As a result, conflicts between fishing interests, on the one hand, and tourism and scientific interests, on the other, have stalled coral reef-based MPA designations at the federal level. Nevertheless, despite a de facto legal preference for fishing, a tension between fishing promotion and coral reef ecosystem protection has been emerging in U.S. law and policy, indicating that modification of U.S. federal law is necessary to promote coral reef ecosystem preservation and restoration.

This article explores developments in U.S. law and policy in the 21st century regarding coral reef protection in light of those ecosystems' acknowledged tourism value. It concludes that the structure and procedures of the National Marine Sanctuary Act have proven ineffective in protecting U.S. coral reefs for purposes of promoting and sustaining coral reef tourism and suggests improvements for future coral reef and MPA policy.

Keywords: coral reef, marine reserve, marine protected area, Antiquities Act, National Marine Sanctuary, executive order, tourism, economics, ocean policy, instrument choice, climate change

Suggested Citation

Craig, Robin Kundis, Coral Reefs, Fishing, and Tourism: Tensions in U.S. Ocean Law and Policy Reform. Stanford Environmental Law Journal, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 3-41, January 2008, FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 283, FSU College of Law, Law and Economics Paper No. 07-012, Available at SSRN:

Robin Kundis Craig (Contact Author)

USC Gould School of Law ( email )

699 Exposition Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States

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