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Building Reef Resilience

“Resilience” has become a buzzword when it comes to the future health of coral reefs, but how exactly can you help in the face of climate change?

As a diver, you’ve probably heard that reefs are under intense and unprecedented pressures — you’ve probably seen evidence of this on your own dives. And, you’re probably aware that the sources of these pressures are global and extensive; climate change and ocean acidification. It’s easy to feel helpless when it comes to the strife of our coral reefs. There’s very little we can do to influence this…or is there? Green Fins promotes an ecosystem approach to strengthening reef resilience.

What is reef resilience?

Resilience is defined as being able to adapt in the face of trauma, threats, significant sources of stress, or bouncing back from difficult experiences. Scientists have found that corals are actually pretty resilient — they’ve been around for millions of years and encountered previous changes in the Earth’s climate.

So why are we now seeing all these depressing accounts of how devastated our reefs are, and how we’re likely to lose them all together within the century if we don’t find ways to protect them more effectively? The bottom line is that coral reefs are now subjected to multiple pressures from many directions — not just global pressures, but local ones, too. In addition to quickly rising sea surface temperatures and acidification, there are also local pressures on coral reefs from mining, fishing, coastal pollution, sedimentation from logging and coastal development and, yes, tourism. This is both good and bad news. The bad news is the simple fact that tourism, ‘one of the fastest growing economic sectors in the world,’ despite its seemingly minimal effects compared to other, more obvious damaging pressures such as mining, is causing intensive damage to coral reefs. This is happening in various ways, including the damage caused from coastal development with the growth of hotels, resorts and supporting services, like restaurants and staff accommodation, which cause an increase in the amount of nutrients and pollutants in the water. The good news is that you, a diver, have the power to make a difference. Here’s how.

How can you help support reef resilience?

In parallel with tourism growth, scuba diving is also an extremely fast-growing sport, attracting over a million new divers each year. The total number of people visiting coral reefs up close and personal with scuba gear is the highest it has ever been due to lower costs, better accessibility, improvements in safety, and comfort with the equipment. Diving is no longer out of reach for many people, and this has resulted in far greater numbers of tourists choosing coral destinations for their vacation.

As a diver, you are in close proximity to the corals and marine life; how you behave and interact when diving directly reflects your values. When divers touch or kick coral, or chase and harass marine life, it results in direct pressure on the entire environment. Holding onto coral, for example, actually removes a protective layer on the organism. When this layer is removed, the coral must expend energy growing a replacement layer instead of using that energy to deal with other pressures, such as cleaning itself from increasing sedimentation or trying to cope with increasing temperatures. If a diver touches or holds onto multiple corals, viruses could spread from one diseased coral to another, creating even more stress. When a diver decides to feed the fish, the animals are no longer scavenging on detritus and marine algae found on the corals, which means corals must try to clean themselves, resulting in even more energy wasted. Although small in the face of global pressures, these are all within our power, as divers, to remove, at least on a local level.

Removing these pressures directly affects reef resilience, as doing so helps the corals better deal with the larger, more wide-scale threats, which are seemingly out of our control. We, as humans, are not so different. Our bodies, much like corals, are coping with the constant onslaught of attack from the environment in one form or another, and healthy and stress-free surroundings are critical to our wellbeing, too. When humans are under too much stress, be it physical or psychological, we often become unwell, and the same is happening right now for many corals.

So, the next time you dive on a coral reef, regardless of its current state and health, remember that although it might look colorful and healthy, it is more likely than not dealing with many everyday stresses, and it does not need any additional ones. The single best thing divers can do is simply stay away from the corals. Being a minimum of 10 feet (3 m) from the corals will ensure that you are not likely to accidentally come into contact with them or cause stress to other marine life that is living there. Tuck your gear in to prevent any snagging and snapping of branching corals from your gauges or octopus, and don’t bring any food for fish to eat — they have plenty. Choose a dive center that’s environmentally conscious, and promote positive messages on their website about how they carry out their business. Check if they are accredited or are a Green Fins member. A recent scientific paper by Reef-World has demonstrated that Green Fins members and their divers are significantly less likely to come into contact with the reefs, because they follow best practices and environmentally friendly responsible guidelines.

Although the threats facing corals are myriad and seemingly overwhelming, know that your actions both above and below the water have the power to make an impact, so make it a positive one and do your part to increase the resilience of corals when you go diving.

ByJJ Harvey, Operations Manager, The Reef-World Foundation