Connecting the Dots Between Technology & Nature Conservation

REEF FISH, BAHAMAS Fish congregate near a shallow reef in Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. © Jeff Yonover

Those familiar with our work will recognize the word valorization, which is an essential element of what we write about and what we do. It’s increasingly important to note that Nature, made more fragile with each passing year by human impact climate change, requires human efforts to protect and hopefully, turn back the clock on damage already done; and it appears to be human nature that maintain a direct  correlation between how something is valued and the amount of attention it gets.

We’re particularly impressed by this example of tech collaboration. Thanks to the Nature Conservancy for highlighting these stories…

The Caribbean Needs Tourism, and Tourism Needs Healthy Coral Reefs

AI and social media are helping quantify the economic value of coral reefs

The Caribbean region is more dependent on tourism than any other region in the world—the sector accounts for over 15 percent of GDP and 13 percent of jobs in the region. And almost all visitors to the Caribbean take part in some activity that relates to coral reefs—either directly, like snorkeling and scuba diving, or indirectly, like enjoying sandy beaches, eating fresh seafood and swimming in crystal waters. That means the health of the Caribbean’s tourism industry—and thus the whole regional economy—is dependent on the health of its coral reefs.

But just how much value do reefs produce? After all, “what gets measured gets managed and improved.” The Nature Conservancy (TNC) recently released the results of a study that focused on reef-adjacent activities and the value they generate for the tourism industry, island governments and Caribbean communities. This study, which builds on an earlier body of globally focused research produced by TNC, found that reef-adjacent activities alone generate an estimated $5.7 billion per year in the Caribbean from roughly 7.4 million visitors. When combined with reef-dependent tourism activities, they generate $7.9 billion total from roughly 11 million visitors.

In other words, a major draw for people traveling to the Caribbean are activities related to coral reef ecosystems, and both the tourism industry and other aspects of the local economies depend on healthy coral reefs to keep this relationship afloat. This evidence offers a pivotal opportunity for advancing coral conservation initiatives not only in the Caribbean but around the world, as it can catalyze both the tourism industry and local governments and communities to invest in protecting and restoring coral reefs for the benefit of economies and incomes.

We now know that these natural wonders are responsible for generating billions of dollars, sustaining livelihoods and anchoring economies in the Caribbean as well as other tropical destinations across the globe. And that should translate into a major incentive to conserve them.  

Equally remarkable is the method by which this information came to light. The study, led by The Nature Conservancy, with support from JetBlue, the World Travel & Tourism Council and Microsoft, merged contemporary culture with modern science by using artificial intelligence to analyze social media content. Social media platforms provide valuable insight into how the general public spends their recreational time and, importantly, their discretionary income. Machine-learning algorithms, a type of artificial intelligence, allow computers to autonomously make determinations based on learned information.

Using algorithms developed by the Microsoft Cognitive Services Computer Vision API, the study analyzed over 86,000 social images and nearly 6.7 million social text posts for visual and language identifiers that indicated reef-adjacent activities, such as white beaches, turquoise waters, reef fish and sea turtles, which were then selected according to geotags indicating proximity to a reef of 30 kilometers or less. The social media metrics derived using artificial intelligence were integrated with traditionally sourced data, like visitor center surveys, tourism business sales figures and government-reported economic data, to produce estimated reef-adjacent economic values for 32 Caribbean countries and territories…

…The Caribbean needs tourism, and tourism needs healthy coral reefs—and the findings from this study, which shine a spotlight on the pervasive dependence on reefs in almost every corner of the region, suggest that this would hold true for any region in the world that has similar reliance on its natural environments to sustain tourism, livelihoods and economies.

In a world where coral reefs are at grave risk due to climate change, overfishing, pollution and other threats, the tourism sector and the people that depend on it grow more vulnerable.  There is urgency, and armed with the information on the economic value of coral reefs revealed in this study, the tourism industry, and governments and communities in tourism-dependent areas, are motivated to invest in the protection and restoration of these essential ecosystems.Understanding this equation and its significance makes us smarter in the global fight to protect and restore nature.

Read the entire Nature Conservancy Post here.

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