What's a Turtle Worth?

By Heidi Gjertsen

As governments and environmental agencies seek to quantify nature’s economic value, conservationists are increasingly asked the seemingly simple question, “What is a sea turtle worth?” Economists measure value in terms of something’s worth to humankind. This measurement includes not only “use values,” which are benefits from physical use or access to an environmental good, but also “nonuse values,” which are values placed on something that exists or can be left for future generations. Humans derive many values from sea turtles, which vary geographically, culturally, and individually. The table characterizes the different types of values and provides examples for sea turtles.

Some values, particularly direct consumptive use, may be incompatible with others. For example, if I consume a turtle for its meat, then it will not be available for other uses such as (a) tourism, (b) ecosystem services that it could have provided, or (c) its breeding contribution to the future population or for non-uses (its mere existence). In the extreme case, if enough individuals are taken from a population (for example, through very high consumptive use), then the ability of the population to sustain itself may be compromised to the point that extinction occurs and all values disappear. This change threatens to be the case for certain sea turtle populations, such as Pacific leatherbacks and eastern Pacific hawksbills.

In various studies, economists have measured some of those values for sea turtles and have generally found that the value of direct consumptive use is less than other values that can be enjoyed from non-consumptive use, indirect consumption, or nonuse. For example, a contingent valuation study found that U.S. residents in North Carolina were willing to pay on average of $33.22 per person per year (in 1991 USD) to prevent loggerhead sea turtles from going extinct (Whitehead 1992). If one believes that such households are representative of the country, then the United States alone would value the existence of loggerhead turtles at nearly $3.8 billion annually. This estimate may include other values that could be derived through the turtles’ existence, such as tourism.

It is important to understand not only the amounts of the values, but also to whom the benefits accrue, because the benefits from conservation versus consumption often accrue to different parties. For example, an individual living in a village where turtles come to nest can benefit from the consumption or sale of turtles, their eggs, and their carapaces. This benefit may be greater than the value they place on the turtle for other “uses” such as spiritual or ecosystem benefits. However, other individuals in the same village or in another village may be able to derive greater benefits from conserving the turtle, such as by participating as a guide in a turtle-watching program. In this scenario, a person from another country might also receive benefits by enjoying a turtle-watching trip.

In the absence of laws that prohibit consumption (or without enforcement of such laws), a person will choose to consume a turtle as long as the benefit to him or her is greater than the cost. Even if the value to society (the total of all values to all people around the world) of conservation is greater than an individual’s benefit from consumption, the individual has no reason to factor this into his or her decision. This scenario is what economists call a negative externality; people acting in their own self-interest create a situation that imposes an unintended cost on society.

Negative externalities occur when the incentives of individuals or groups pursuing their own interests do not coincide with the interests of society (whether defined as a village, a nation, or the world). The question, then, is how to align the desires of those who are harvesting turtles with what is socially optimal on a global scale. Although enacting and enforcing conservation laws can achieve this goal, laws are not necessarily the most effective or fairest solution. Another option is to create a mechanism to transfer the non-consumptive value that exists throughout the world to the local users, thus giving people an incentive to do what is best for society. One such promising approach is for stakeholders to negotiate a contract that transfers a portion of the global value of conservation to the local users in exchange for giving up consumptive use and for participating in conservation. This approach is already being done successfully in some places, such as Nicaragua (see page 37).

As conservationists begin to answer the question “What is a turtle worth?” or look to develop economic alternatives to direct consumption, it is essential to take a broader view of values (use and nonuse) and to understand to whom those values accrue. This information can make a powerful addition to the conservationist’s toolkit.