Most of us never want our dive vacations to end. Leaving those sun-soaked beaches and post-dive afternoon naps is often a hard pill to swallow. So it’s natural that we want to bring home souvenirs to remind us of our trip. A beach-seller’s bracelet is a remembrance of carefree days once you return to the daily routine, and supporting local traders is a worthwhile goal. But as tourists, we must make responsible choices when it comes to shopping, taking care particularly to avoid buying marine life souvenirs.
Developing tourism infrastructure strains local natural resources, through habitat removal and disturbance, as well as less-obvious pressures, such as increased waste. We can reduce our contribution to these pressures by not packing excess plastic packaging, for example, or by bringing used batteries and empty toiletry bottles back home for recycling. We can also have an influence when purchasing souvenirs.
Green Fins unites governments and industry in promoting environmental best practices for diving and snorkeling destinations worldwide. Within these guidelines, we ask dive and snorkel centers not to display or sell marine life souvenirs or decoration, and tourists to do the same. But why?
Driving marine life exploitation
The use of marine life to make decorative and household items, jewelry and marine life souvenirs drives a global business called the marine-curio trade, which involves the large-scale collection of a range of animals. Traders harvest thousands of types of shells, as well as corals, sponges, starfish, crustaceans, fish and turtles. There are numerous conservation issues associated with this industry, including over-exploitation and direct habitat damage through irresponsible collection methods.
Traders rake coral reefs empty of “curio” shell species, such as the Triton’s trumpet. The shells and the sea snails which inhabit them are left to dry out and die in the hot sun. The shell’s destination? Just a little something to brighten up the bathroom at home.
Traders collect hundreds of thousands of cowry shells, known as the first global currency, to create necklaces. Tourists wear these for a few weeks before forgetting them and leaving them to collect dust.
Worse still, traders snatch seahorses from their seagrass fronds by the thousands. While many of these end up in Chinese medicine, a significant portion are also sold as souvenirs. Pufferfish, forever frozen in their puffed-up, panicked state, hang from strings swaying sadly in the wind. Instead, grab a mask and snorkel and see them in their natural environment — you’ll find them much more adorable.
Marine life souvenirs endanger species
Defenders of Wildlife estimates that this trade removes up to 30 million fish, 1.5 million live stony corals, and 10 million other invertebrates each year from marine ecosystems across the world. Many of the targeted species are now endangered globally. Six of the seven species of sea turtles are endangered or critically endangered. All international trade in marine-turtle products is banned. Despite this, vacationers can purchase turtle shell products easily in many destinations.
Losing a species globally — any species — is a tragedy. Losing a species purely because we like a tropical-themed bathroom is unacceptable. These marine animals play vital roles within complex ecological systems, and their absence has widespread impacts. For example, the Triton’s trumpet is one of the only predators of the crown-of-thorns starfish, which eats the fast-growing coral species that help maintain the genetic balance of a coral reef. As we remove Triton’s trumpets at unsustainable rates — exacerbated by other factors such as global climate change — crown-of-thorns populations are booming, threatening the survival of many coral reefs.
Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but bubbles
It’s not only marine life souvenirs that we must consider, but also the shells we may collect along the shoreline. While we should never collect marine life while diving or snorkeling, beachcombing can be quite enjoyable. Don’t worry, you don’t have to stop collecting seashells. Just make sure that nothing is living inside them and put them back where you found them once you have admired them. This way, they can complete their natural cycle within the ecosystem, breaking down to provide essential nutrients, sand and elements for another animal’s growth. What’s just one shell, you ask? Consider that in 2015, international tourist figures reached over one billion, with another five to six billion estimated to travel within their own countries. Consider what it means if each tourist took just one shell? It’s not such a small impact any more.
Ocean life is perfect, exactly as it is
So think twice next time you reach for a glittering shell, or pick up that magnet decorated in coral. Choose sustainable alternatives when shopping for souvenirs. Support local vendors who are keeping alive traditional crafts, such as the carvings of wooden thresher sharks in Malapascua, Philippines. Support resourceful communities that have learned how to transform trash into treasures. Even better, let your memories and photos speak for themselves. Take the time to observe and learn about marine life in all its natural glory. As a diver, you have access to a great variety of fish-identification or marine-monitoring courses. These will teach you all about the creatures you see on each dive. Return home with stories about your favorite vibrant reef instead of a token gift that you hurriedly purchased at the airport.
By guest writer Chloë Harvey, Programs Manager, The Reef-World Foundation
Green Fins is an initiative of the UNEP and The Reef-World Foundation, providing the only internationally recognized environmental standards for the diving and snorkeling tourism industry. Dive and snorkel operators sign up for free membership and receive annual environmental assessments and training to reduce their impacts. You can find Green Fins members in Malaysia, the Maldives, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.