Hakai Magazine

A fish swims among cold water coral at the Multimar Wattforum aquarium in Germany. Photo by Wolfgang Runge/dpa/Corbis
A fish swims among cold water coral at the Multimar Wattforum aquarium in Germany. Photo by Wolfgang Runge/dpa/Corbis

Valuing the Unknown

Why are some people willing to pay to protect something they’ve only just learned exists?

Authored by

by Rachel Nuwer

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How much would you pay to protect something that you will never interact with and that, until a few minutes ago, you didn’t even know existed? While the knee-jerk reaction might be “nothing,” a team of researchers has found that this is not true for everyone. With a little education, some people can be convinced not only to care about a previously unknown environment or organism, they’ll even go so far as to help fund its protection.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, with the advent of remotely operated vehicles, that scientists were able to study cold-water corals—enigmatic organisms that live more than two kilometers deep. Like their colorful warm-water relatives, cold-water coral grow carbonate shells and provide a habitat for other marine life.

Today, even the most basic scientific information about the corals is sorely lacking. In the general public, most people don’t even know they exist. Norway, for example, has one of the world’s highest known densities of cold-water coral, yet fewer than five percent of Norwegians have heard of them. Yet after a 15-minute presentation introducing cold-water coral, scientists found that Norwegians would be willing to pay €280 on average (around US $314) to protect them.

When people explain their motivations for wanting to protect an animal or habitat, they typically cite one of three reasons: they feel it has intrinsic value; they think future generations have a right to enjoy it; or they believe that protecting it directly benefits society. While past studies have shown that people are willing to shell out for big, charismatic animals like whales, or beautiful, accessible habitats like tropical coral reefs, researchers know far less about how poorly known species and ecosystems figure into people’s conservation priority lists.

To fill in that gap, researchers asked a randomly selected, nationally representative sample of about 400 Norwegian adults to join them for a 15-minute presentation on cold-water coral ecology, and their importance as a habitat for fish. They also showed photos of pristine cold-water corals, as well as ones that had been crushed by trawling and drilling, while also pointing out that Norway’s economy depends in part on fisheries and oil.

When the presentation was over, the researchers asked the participants to fill out a brief survey about their views on cold-water corals, oil, and fisheries. The participants ranked how much protection they thought cold-water corals should be given, and how much money they would be willing to pay to enable that protection.

As the scientists found, three-quarters of the participants said that protection areas for cold-water corals should be expanded. Most people also believed that the corals should be protected regardless of whether oil companies were affected, and they thought that keeping fishermen out of those areas would ultimately benefit the fishing industry.

“We learned a lot about people’s reasoning behind their wish to protect coral reefs,” says Margrethe Aanesen, the lead author of the study. But she adds that she and her colleagues were unable to determine whether it was the potential for increased fish stocks or the intrinsic value of the habitat that motivated people’s desire for protection. “Is it the corals themselves, or is it because the fish that live there are important for people?” Aanesen says. “We were not able to untangle this.” To clear this up, the team is working on a follow-up study that will ask participants to clarify their motivations.

This drive to protect cold-water coral, however, is not necessarily universal. In a not-yet-published follow-up study, the researchers performed the same experiment in Ireland and found very different results. In that country, a significantly lower portion of participants said that they would pay to protect cold-water coral. And while many Norwegian participants said that industries have no right to destroy habitats, Irish participants were more willing to accept that economic growth entails necessary consequences for the environment. The differences in opinion, Aanesen says, likely stem from cultural as well as economic factors. “Norway experienced a relatively small hit from the financial crisis, whereas Ireland was severely hit,” she says.

Regardless of the survey results, Aanesen discovered one unintended benefit from the studies. “I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people who took part, some expressing interest in protecting the corals, and others asking more about why they should put their money into this,” she says. “People getting engaged as a result of these studies is an effect that I’m sure is underestimated.”