Reducing Local and Direct Environmental Impacts Associated with Diving and Snorkelling Tourism Activities to Increase Reef Resilience
Green Fins is currently active in six countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, The Maldives, The Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam
Coral reefs are globally important ecosystems facing intense and unprecedented pressures. Major global issues like marine debris, coral bleaching and illegal fishing mean that experts predict at least 60% of the world’s coral reefs will be destroyed within the next 30 years. Meanwhile, the tourism industry dependent upon these reefs continues to show considerable economic growth. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (2014), tourism and travel sector activities generate 9.8% of GDP and support nearly 277 million people in employment, representing one in every eleven jobs globally. The World Tourism Organization predicts that, by 2020, over 1.56 billion international trips will be made each year, most of them intra-regional and with the highest numbers in Europe, followed by East Asia and the Pacific, with coastal tourism constituting a significant part of this.
However, tourism can constitute a locally significant driver of environmental degradation, putting pressures on the ecosystem through direct and indirect impacts associated with developing infrastructure as well as other activities. SCUBA diving and snorkelling are nowadays accessible to, and enjoyed by, a mass audience, which brings more and more people into marine habitats with very limited knowledge of the fragility of the environment. Intensive SCUBA diving and boating can directly damage marine habitats, making them susceptible to other stresses and degrading marine life health. Reports have shown that areas heavily used for recreational diving show higher incidences of coral tissue abrasion from anchor damage and diver damage as well as increased coral disease when compared to less frequently visited sites. As a result, marine tourism currently constitutes an increasing threat to the natural resource from which it has grown, and thus risks to undermine a key source of development and income to coastal nations. Local impacts such as these will greatly reduce reef resilience in the face of global threats like climate change. If left unmanaged, the rapid growth of the diving and snorkelling industry could cause significant damage to coral reefs, particularly in areas of high biodiversity.
There are a number of past initiatives on tourism impact management in general and diving specifically, with a number of guidelines available to help individual divers reduce their impact on the reef (e.g. Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques, CMAS “10 Golden Rules”, Coral Reef Alliance “Best Practice When Diving”, Project AWARE “Ten ways a diver can protect the underwater environment”, Mesoamerican Reef Alliance “A Practical Guide to Good Practice”). However, there are no initiatives like Green Fins which combines a code of conduct with performance assessment and public-private collaboration.
Green Fins was initiated in 2004 to transform the threat of the diving and snorkelling industry into an opportunity to protect coral reefs. Green Fins is implemented internationally through a partnership between the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and The Reef-World Foundation (Reef-World). It is a proven approach (Hunt et al. 2013, Roche et al. 2016) encompassing three main elements; a 15-point environmental code of conduct for dive centers complemented by a robust assessment system to monitor and promote compliance; support towards developing or strengthening implementation of relevant regulatory frameworks; and strategic outreach to and capacity building among dive centers and their customers as well as government partners. Almost 500 operators across Asia have committed to protecting coral reefs by working towards following the Green Fins environmental Code of Conduct.
Annual assessments are conducted by qualified Green Fins assessors who measure members’ performance against the list of 15 code of conduct activities and associated assessment criteria. Every business activity is given a score in a 330-point impact scoring system; activities posing a greater threat to marine biodiversity (e.g. dropping an anchor) are given a higher impact score than those not posing a threat (e.g. lack of environmental awareness material). Therefore the lower the score, the lower the impacts the businesses have on coral reefs. Continued participation and Green Fins certification is dependent on centers lowering impact scores from year to year. Solutions or alternatives to high-risk activities are agreed upon in collaboration with each business manager. Solutions can range anywhere from effectively separating and recycling the operation’s waste to monitoring local coral bleaching levels. Participation in relevant environmental activities such as citizen science programs or reef cleanup activities is promoted. Assessor training and qualifications are provided by Reef-World to reduce issues associated with inter-assessor variability.
Green Fins works by engaging relevant national authorities and building their capacity to use Green Fins as part of wider marine resource management programs. Green Fins is currently active within the national government frameworks of Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. In Malaysia, the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia (DMPM) adopted Green Fins as a national program in 2009. Recognizing that Green Fins contributes to national priorities and commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity it has been included in the Department’s Key Performance Index (KPI) as well as being a key component of the department’s action plan for delivery of Aichi Target 10. In the Philippines, the Green Fins Code of Conduct has been adopted as a guideline for environmentally sustainable diving under the Departmental Administrative Order (DAO) Sustainable Coral Reef Ecosystem Management Plan (SCREMP), leading to some national resource allocation for work with the diving industry. Similar efforts are underway in the Maldives and Vietnam.
How successful has it been?
Green Fins is a proven approach to reduce local direct threats to coral reefs associated with diving and snorkel activities, thus building their resilience. Since 2004, Green Fins has expanded throughout popular diving destinations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Nearly 500 dive and snorkel centers have signed up to be Green Fins members by committing to follow the 15 environmental points of the Code of Conduct since the program was launched. In countries where Green Fins has been integrated into National Government action plans, memberships are continually increasing and activities are set to expand to new locations throughout each country. In locations where Green Fins members have been reassessed annually, average assessment scores have continually improved, proving the success of Green Fins as a replicable management strategy to reduce damage to coral reef ecosystems.
Fifty-three qualified individuals from the National Governments of the Philippines, Malaysia, the Maldives and Vietnam have been trained as Green Fins Assessors to enable further expansion and continued implementation of Green Fins within their respective countries. As Green Fins is introduced to new countries and new locations, new assessors will be trained.
Hundreds of representatives associated with the diving and snorkelling industry (including dive guides, instructors, boat crew, boat captains, resort managers, resort staff, marine resource managers, Government officials and the general public) have received environmental training focused on reducing the threats of the industry on its local natural resources. Twenty-seven local dive guides or instructors from the Philippines have received further training on the conservation and sustainable management of their local coral reefs and have become Green Fins Ambassadors.
Lessons learned and recommendations
Lessons learned and key recommendations include:
- Green Fins has successfully been replicated across tourist destinations in six Asian countries. This has been driven by demand from the industry as well as keenness from the government to manage tourism activities in all major tourist sites. Replication is possible because Reef-World has made capacity building for all levels of implementation readily available through outreach materials, Operational Handbooks and training programs.
- Due to high industry demand, over subscription of dive centres can quickly become difficult for Green Fins management teams to oversee. It is therefore recommended that implementation focuses on single destinations. Once activities are fully established, replication to a new site can be considered, and so forth.
- The global tourism market is changing and the Asian tourism market is currently booming. Green Fins has successfully engaged all of these major global tourism markets with outreach and communications adapted to each audience (e.g. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean).
- The approach is documented, and comprehensive guidance material and training is available to resource managers globally through the series of Handbooks for implementation at the dive and snorkel centers, tourist destinations, and at the national governement level.
- There is a comprehensive collection of outreach and awareness raising material available in multiple languages and designed to address key environmental challenges within the diving and snorkelling industry.
- Green Fins builds meaningful partnerships between the private and public sectors. This has been critical for the successful replication of the program across six countries.
- Uptake by government has been key in building Green Fins momentum. Government participation is the result of Reef-World and UNEP clearly communicating how Green Fins delivers on their national and international environmental commitments, as well as provides opportunity to strengthen relevant laws and regulations.
- Green Fins drives sustainable economic growth and better informed consumer choices.
- Dive Centres which adopt Green Fins have noticed a more loyal repeat customer base that make longer stays and are willing to pay more for services. UNEP and Reef-World are committed to continuing the development, implementation and expansion of Green Fins into new sites and countries, and are looking for partners to collaborate with.
United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)
The Rufford Foundation
National Aquarium Limited
Mangroves for the Future
National government budgets of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Maldives and Vietnam
Private sector (diving industry) in-kind support in all active countries
United Nations Environment Program
The Reef-World Foundation
Reef Check Malaysia
Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Department of Marine Parks, Malaysia
Ministry of Environment, Environmental Protection Agency, Maldives
Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Philippines
El Nido Foundation
Save Philippine Seas
Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, Thailand
Vietnam Institute of Oceanography