By Dr Kathryn Shutt
Dr. Kathryn Shutt is a conservation primatologist. She works for Fauna and Flora International as the West Africa Conservation Programme Coordinator.
Coral reefs are among the most bio-diverse and beautiful habitats on earth. However, because of global warming, ocean acidification, over exploitation and irresponsible development, coral reefs are in steep decline. Tourist activities, such as snorkelling and diving, can damage coral reefs if they are not conducted responsibly.
What is it?
Coral reefs consist of huge communities of organisms, which live on or associated with huge limestone structures formed by animals called coral polyps. Climate change, coastal development and unregulated tourism are all contributing to the steep decline of coral reefs. Their decline not only results in the loss of countless animals and plants, but also affects the livelihoods of people and communities that directly or indirectly depend on them. Taking a few simple precautions can help reduce the impact tourists have on coral reefs, and contribute to their protection.
What you should know
- Coral reefs are in precipitous decline. Global warming and rising sea temperatures can cause coral “bleaching”. Ocean acidification from rising carbon dioxide levels reduces the ability of corals to produce their limestone skeleton. Pollution from coastal development, agriculture, human waste and rubbish is really harmful. Fishing practices in some parts of the world can also be very damaging.
- Tourist activities can also have negative impacts on coral reefs. Divers and snorkelers, attracted to reefs by the huge diversity of life and colour, can be very damaging when they grab, kick or walk on reefs, or stir up sediments which then settle on the corals. The boats they use can damage corals directly through contact or inappropriate use of anchors, and indirectly through pollution. The development of coastal infrastructure to support marine tourism can also be damaging, through the clearing of coastal habitats (especially mangroves) to increase access to beaches, the building of piers and jetties, sewage and other runoff from hotels and resorts, and the dumping of rubbish in the sea.
- Tourists also accumulate a high carbon footprint when travelling long distances to reach tropical marine resorts offering coral reef experiences, contributing to CO2 emissions and global warming.
- The destruction of coral reefs has implications for tourism, and for fin fish and shellfish fisheries. If coral reefs suffer, then so do the local communities which rely on them.
What you can do
- If you are planning a holiday in an area with coral reefs, there are some things that you can do to ensure you minimise your impact.
- Think carefully about your destination, and the carbon footprint you are creating, particularly if the destination is a long distance away. A holiday nearer to home may be just as good, and could save you money!
- Choose a tour operator and/or resort which offers environmentally responsible practices, including minimising the impacts of infrastructure development, energy conservation, responsible sewage and rubbish disposal, recycling, and contributing to local conservation initiatives.
- Try and choose a resort or hotel run by local people which benefits the local community.
- Always pay user fees for national or marine parks – the fees help with conservation and protection efforts.
- Never buy souvenirs or jewellery made from coral or other marine life, and do complain to your resort, agent, or the local authorities if you see anyone collecting or selling such items.
- If you are snorkelling or diving on or near coral reefs, make sure you use an operator which advertises and practices responsible conduct, including the use of existing moorings for boats. Get expert instruction and practice your skills well away from any reef. Make sure your entry and exit points don’t risk damaging coral or other marine life. Never touch, grab or walk on corals; even the slightest contact can damage them, and some of them can give you a powerful sting! Maintain a safe distance from the reef at all times, and avoid using gloves which may tempt you to touch marine life.
- Don’t remove anything live or dead from the reef, except perhaps plastic or other items of rubbish.
- Never throw rubbish in the sea.
- Encourage your operator and fellow travellers to act responsibly.
- Participate in voluntary activities such as beach clean-ups, and learn as much as you can about coral reefs – it will give you a greater appreciation and make your holiday much more enjoyable.
- If you see practices you disagree with, do let the operator, tour or travel company concerned know. You can also contact the tourism department of the country you are in, or its embassy or high commission on your return home, to express your concerns.
Where does this occur?
Many countries offer access to coral reefs. Some of the most popular include Australia, the Caribbean/Central America, the Maldives, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hawaii, Florida, and countries bordering the Red Sea.
Links to other organisations for further information