A variety of corals form an outcrop on Flynn Reef, part of the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, Queensland, Australia. Photo Credit: Toby Hudson, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Not all divers dive on coral reefs, but those who do consider themselves the lucky ones. The remarkable biodiversity of these ‘rainforests of the sea’ creates beautiful underwater habitats that divers never tire of exploring. New divers quickly develop an appreciation for corals after getting certified and recognize their important place in the undersea environment. Unfortunately, divers can be a threat to the very thing that they hold dear.
Wittingly or not, divers and snorkelers are causing substantial damage to the world’s coral reefs. Usually due to poor training and a lack of awareness, divers contact corals while diving, damaging or breaking them, leaving reefs unprepared to take on their biggest challenge: climate change. Scientists estimate that over a quarter of the world’s reefs have been damaged or lost. If the current rate of destruction is maintained, over 60 percent will be lost by 2060.
While they are not the sole cause of the destruction, divers and dive businesses have a responsibility to protect corals and a unique opportunity to champion coral reef protection. This is the starting premise for the approach taken by Green Fins, an initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in partnership with the Reef-World Foundation, that is taking the lead in reducing the negative impact to coral reefs caused by the scuba diving and snorkeling industry. By developing the world’s first set of environmental standards for scuba diving and snorkeling, and working with dive operators to implement them, Green Fins is helping to create a sustainable diving industry that protects the environment at the same time.
Healthy Reef Equals Happy Diving
Coral reefs are the bedrock of life in the oceans. They provide living, feeding and breeding grounds for over 25% of all marine life on the planet, protect coastal land from the damaging effects of waves and extreme weather events, and are the source of nitrogen and other vital nutrients for marine food chains.
Coral Reefs also play a key role in global economies, providing fish to catch and tourist attractions for swimmers, scuba divers and snorkelers. Many coastal communities rely on coral reefs for their livelihood, with the economic activity generated from tourism and fishing providing major sources of income.
As tourism becomes more popular—it is one of the fastest growing global industries—huge numbers of people are flocking to tropical locales and descending on coral reefs for leisure activities, mainly scuba diving and snorkeling. With increased numbers of divers comes a heightened risk of damaging coral reefs.
The Hands-On Approach to Diving
Diving and related activities can harm coral ecosystems in many ways. Divers must often be transported to coral reef dive sites by boat, so oil, food waste and other pollutants released into marine environments poison marine life. Boats that use anchors toss them wantonly onto reefs, breaking off huge chunks of coral in the process.
Divers mainly damage corals by—knowingly or not—touching, scraping or breaking them. Chaotic finning causes divers to kick corals. Inadequate mastery of buoyancy results in divers swimming too close and bumping into corals with their bodies or gear. Some divers will touch corals purposefully, to steady themselves in a current or because they are curious.
No matter how weak or strong the touch, contact damages corals, which have extremely sensitive outer layers. Even the slightest touch can remove this layer and leave corals open to bacterial infection. While the damage per diver is minimal and barely noticeable, taken together, the cumulative amount of damage caused by divers is substantial. When corals are damaged, they are unable to fight off parasites and diseases, leaving them weakened and ill-equipped to deal with bigger problems presented by the effects of climate change, such as warming temperatures and ocean acidification.
Three divers are standing or sitting on the coral and causing physical damage. Photo Credit: Jjharvey8, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
The Green Fins Approach
Since 2004, Green Fins has been promoting an approach that puts the responsibility of protecting coral reefs on those who rely on them the most. The Reef-World Foundation and the UN Environment Programme have been working closely with the diving industry to adapt and evolve the approach to create real solutions to the challenges these businesses deal with on a daily basis.
Green Fins is a public-private initiative that encourages dive operators, local communities and government agencies to work together to reduce their environmental impact on coral reefs. The REef-Wolrd Foundation is a small and scrappy UK charity that internationally coordinates Green Fins activities and works side-by-side with the Coral Reef Unit of the UNEP. Green Fins has developed the world’s first and only environmental standards for scuba diving and snorkeling businesses. Coupled with its robust assessment system, the Green Fins approach enables dive business’ environmental performance to be measured, evaluated and certified.
“Diving and snorkelling centers are uniquely positioned to enact positive and lasting changes within their own communities and among customers,” according to the program website.
The Green Fins approach involves encouraging the private sector to adopt a code of conduct that, if properly implemented, will help dive businesses and their customers mitigate the negative impact that their diving activities have on the environment. The Green Fins Code of Conduct contains 15 directives that dive businesses are expected to abide by. They include implementing a ‘no touch’ policy for all reef diving and snorkeling, using mooring buoys instead of anchors at reef dive sites, participating in underwater cleanups, providing customers with an overview of environmentally friendly diving practices during all pre-dive briefings, and more
Dive operators can voluntarily apply to become a Green Fins member free of charge. Once accepted, a Green Fins assessor will visit the dive center to conduct a training session where employees are taught the best practices for conducting diving activities above and below the water. Green Fins assessors also conduct yearly evaluations based on comprehensive criteria, to measure how well they are following the guidelines. Those adhering to the best practices defined by Green Fins are awarded certificates.
The project was first initiated in Thailand in 2004, and has since spread to other parts of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The Green Fins network now includes dive centers in Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Palau, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The success of the Green Fins approach has largely been due to its ability to convince both governments that the Green Fins program contributes to national priorities related to marine conservation, and to commit resources as a result. In each country, a Green Fins National Team is formed by a national authority, such as the environment department, to oversee the introduction and implementation of the program across diving and snorkeling destinations in that country. Each site, usually tourist ‘hot spots’ is managed by individuals from the National Team or through a site-based Local Management team, such as a coastal or marine park area authority. For example, in the Philippines, the Green Fins program is being overseen at the national level by the Department of Environment and National Resources. In the popular diving and snorkeling destination El Nido, in Palawan, the Philippine government has partnered with a local NGO called The El Nido Foundation to oversee local activities. This partnership model has proven to be very successful.
No Green=No Blue
With the growing publicity of environmental causes, some customers are coming to expect that their dive operators do everything they can to reduce their environmental impact. Participating in the Green Fins program and achieving a low score (the lower the score, the lower the environmental impact) allows dive operators to show that they are contributing to the solution and not the problem. Green Fins hopes that dive shops will be motivated to participate in the program to attract eco-conscious divers.
- By Ryan Jones, Community Editor at Deepblu.