Managing Recreational Use

Herbivorous sea urchins mature within supervised saltwater tanks to aid in coral patch algae removal. Photo © Ian Shive
recreational users on beach

Overcrowding on a beach can have impacts on the nearshore water environment. Identifying the carrying capacity of an area is an important part of the strategy to reduce recreational impacts. Photo © Wolcott Henry 2005/Marine Photobank

Recreation is an important use of many coral reef areas. Recreational uses can be extractive (fishing) or non-extractive (diving, snorkeling, boating, and catch-and-release fishing). Such uses are both a source of pressure on coral reefs as well as a major source of income. Recreational users and commercial tourism operators play an important role in reef conservation and management, and are often key partners with reef management agencies in efforts to protect coral reefs.

Risks from recreational activities include anchor damage to corals and seagrass meadows, littering, boat strikes to marine mammals and turtles, changed animal behavior from feeding or diver interactions, fin damage to corals when snorkeling and diving, discharge of wastewater, and introduction of invasive species.

These risks are generally easy to address with local management measures. Through a balanced approach focusing on sustainable use, recreational uses can be managed to minimize their impacts on coral reefs while strengthening the contributions of recreational users to reef management and the economy. Key approaches for managing recreation include setting limits, managing reef activities, and encouraging best practices.


Setting Limits

  • Carrying capacity — One approach to preventing unacceptable impacts from human use is to set limits on numbers of users and types of activity based on the capacity of the ecosystem to cope with expected impacts. In practice, it can be difficult to determine environmental carrying capacity, but limits can be set using best available knowledge and an approach inclusive of reef users. Social issues such as crowding, conflict, noise and other factors influencing user satisfaction (social carrying capacity) are important considerations for recreational users and commercial tourism operators. These often end up being major drivers of decisions about the carrying capacity of popular tourism sites.
  • Limits of acceptable change — While environmental carrying capacity can be a useful approach to minimizing impacts from recreation, managers should be cautious about applying it too rigidly as the number of users that is sustainable for a particular site depends strongly on the behavior of the users. For this reason, the concept of ‘limits of acceptable change’ (LAC) can be a useful alternative for managing use. LAC can be a powerful approach for getting users (especially commercial tourism operators) to adopt best practice, as the numbers of users is dependent on the size of their ‘ecological footprint’. A key requirement of an LAC approach is a system for regularly monitoring reef condition as part of a dynamic management system with set thresholds and actions.

Managing Reef Activities

Mooring buoys are one management strategy to address recreational impacts. Photo © James Oliver

Mooring buoys are one management strategy to address recreational impacts. Photo © James Oliver

Once the amount of use that is sustainable at a site has been established, managers will need to put in place systems for managing activities. Where recreational use is managed through regulation and/or a permit system, enforcement can occur through a combination of self-regulation, spot-checks, and surveillance. Non-commercial uses often do not require permission, so less regulatory approaches may be needed to reduce impacts such as anchoring, crowding and excessive vessel traffic. Installation of mooring buoys and associated education campaigns can reduce the amount of anchoring, while reduced shore-based infrastructure (such as limited vessel berths or car parking at boat launch sites) can help control the amount of boat traffic around a reef. User pay systems, such as day passes, can be used to cap numbers of visitors to a site or disperse use to a wider area and so reduce pressure on the most popular sites.


A range of other approaches can also be used to reduce concentration of use to a fewer number of ‘hardened’ sites, such as installing moorings or installing attractions (for example, artificial reefs or underwater sculpture parks, such as those in  opens in a new windowGrenada and  opens in a new windowMexico).

Encouraging Best Practices

The impacts of recreational activities can also be reduced through environmentally sensitive behavior. There are many sources of information on best practices for tourism that help to codify behaviors that reduce risks to reefs. These include the  opens in a new windowResponsible Reef Practices developed for the Great Barrier Reef and guidance provided by the  opens in a new windowCoral Reef Alliance. Even for extractive recreational activities like fishing, impacts can be reduced through setting and enforcing bag and size limits, and by encouraging adoption of best practice fishing.

Coral reef managers can be important sources of information about best practices for recreational users. Building best practice principles and guidance into outreach and education programs can be a simple way to reduce pressure on popular reef sites. Adoption of best practices can be encouraged through systems of formal recognition such as opens in a new windoweco-certification programs and opens in a new windoweco-rating schemes.


Best Practice Fishing Guidelines from the Great Barrier Reef

  • Actively attend your fishing gear at all times while fishing.
  • Take only what you need – do not necessarily fish to the bag limit.
  • Do not use pest or non-native fish for bait. Never release introduced species into the water.
  • Do not fish where fish feeding takes place, for example as part of a tourist program.
  • Do not fish near a commercial dive site or pontoon.
  • Do not fish at known or suspected fish spawning aggregation sites.
  • Fish a safe distance from marine animals (such as dolphins, whales, turtles, and dugongs) and bird roosting or nesting areas.
  • If you’re unsure of the fish identity or size, release the fish immediately.
  • Return all undersized and unwanted fish quickly to minimize injury.
  • If you’re keeping the fish, remove it from the hook or net immediately and kill it humanely.
  • Do not litter – clean up all fishing gear (such as discarded tackle and line, and bait bags) and take it back to shore to dispose of it properly.
  • After filleting fish, avoid disposing of the frames at boat ramps and popular areas.
  • Participate in fish monitoring and research programs where available.
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