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An Introduction to the Coral Triangle

The Coral Triangle represents the center of the world’s marine biodiversity, and yet it covers only 1.6 percent of the planet’s oceanic area.

Have you ever dived in Malaysia, Indonesia, or the Philippines? It would be no surprise if these were some of your best dives. These three countries, plus Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and East Timor, are in the heart of the Coral Triangle. This global epicenter of marine biodiversity surprisingly covers only 1.6 percent of the planet’s oceanic area.

Effectively managing the Coral Triangle resources

Diving hotspots such as Sipadan in Malaysia, the Derawan Islands in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, and Tubbataha Reefs National Marine Park in the Philippines, form part of an essential marine ecosystem. If we compared this area to any land-based region, the Coral Triangle could be thought of as the Amazon of the seas.

The world is experiencing extreme climatic changes, both on land and underwater. Although coral reefs are remarkably resilient, their very survival is in question. Coral Triangle reefs face not only global stressors, such as overfishing, pollution and climate change, but also a localized stressor — an influx of divers from all over the world.

Scuba diving is one of the biggest activities in the region. In countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, nature-based tourism is a crucial part of the national income. The industry has diversified and improved local livelihoods. As part of the diving community, you have a firsthand view of diving and tourism impacts, and to continue enjoying this region sustainably, conservation initiatives such as Green Fins are crucial.

What is the Coral Triangle worth?

Unfortunately, it’s always easier to justify the “worth” of something — especially if it’s an animal or a plant — if we assign it a monetary value. For this reason, and to raise awareness about the importance of natural ecosystems, an economic value has been estimated for the world’s coral reefs. This has opened the door for better management, which will foster more sustainable use and long-term prosperity.

Coral reefs have a global value of $9.9 trillion USD. The total net benefit per year of the world’s reefs is estimated at $29.8 billion; tourism and recreation account for $9.6 billion. Coral reefs are not only vital for marine ecosystems and life on Earth, but they also provide people with many more benefits, usually referred to as ecosystem values and services. Healthy, thriving coral reefs give subsistence to local communities. They provide natural barriers from storm surges and waves. They offer tourism and recreation sites, and support nursery habitats for many species.

Worth in terms of biodiversity

While the above are mostly human-centered values, delineating them helps us understand why we need coral reefs. Aside from these values, however, coral reefs — and especially those in the Coral Triangle — play an immensely significant role in the world’s marine biodiversity. This small area accounts for a staggering amount of productivity, holding:

  • 76 percent of all known coral species
  • 37 percent of all known coral-reef fish species
  • Six out of the seven marine-turtle species
  • 33 percent of the world’s coral reefs
  • The greatest extent of mangrove forests in the world

Understanding both the economic and natural value of the Coral Triangle reefs means that, as divers, we must do everything we can to protect and conserve them. This is where the Green Fins Initiative comes in.

The Green Fins Initiative

Currently three out of the six countries in the Coral Triangle (Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines) are implementing Green Fins’ environmentally friendly guidelines. These promote a sustainable diving and snorkeling industry. Although the threats posed by our industry aren’t near those of climate change or overfishing, direct impacts such as anchoring on corals, touching coral and marine life, and pollutants sullying beaches and waterways do impact how coral reefs can cope with the larger threats. Think of the last dive trip you took. If there were 10 divers on your boat and three boats at the dive site, three times a day, for 365 days a year, that would result in 32,850 divers per year on that site. If each diver accidentally touches the reef just once, that amounts to approximately 30,000 hits per year. Suddenly these numbers start becoming more significant.

What can you do?

As part of the diving community, you’ve most likely seen damage like this first-hand, but until now, you may not have perceived it as significantly detrimental to coral reefs. What can you do to counteract it? As a guest, you can request that a dive shop implements more sustainable practices. Tip the guides who provide environmental briefings (and let them know why), and ask about the regulations implemented on the dive site. Choose dive centers that follow environmental guidelines and ones that try to protect the reefs. If you’re in the diving industry, watch for initiatives that will help lessen the environmental impact and make your operation as environmentally friendly as possible.

Although these actions may seem small, by doing your part you’re helping reefs build resilience. Research dive operations and locations before you choose your next dive destination to help create demand for sustainable diving. Only by working together can the diving and snorkeling community help save our reefs.

By Juliana Corrales, project coordinator, design and communication, Reef-World Foundation