Recreational activity is one of the joys in life that so many people share. Various types of recreation get people outside in all conditions from the 10o F New England winter weather to the hot beaches of a Caribbean island. Some tropical island activities include: boating, kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, wind surfing, and wake boarding- but they all have one thing in common, that is they are located in the ocean. Although some take place in deeper water, many of these activities are performed in shallow waters full of coral reef habitats. We know how fragile and important these reefs are and we also know how easily us humans have caused damage to them. Coral reef ecosystems are among the most biologically diverse and economically valuable ecosystems on Earth. Worldwide precious coral reefs attract millions of tourists annually and yield a significant economic benefit to those countries and regions where they are located. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA ), recreation and tourism account for $9.6 billion of the total global net profit of coral reefs. This large amount of revenue generated is being threatened by the degradation of coral reefs.
Little Venice quay flooded with tourists. Mykonos island. Cyclades, Agean Sea, Greece. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov. [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Most tourism in natural areas today is not ecotourism and is not, therefore, sustainable. Specifically, ecotourism possesses the following characteristics:
- Conscientious, low-impact visitor behavior
- Sensitivity towards, and appreciation of, local cultures and biodiversity
- Support for local conservation efforts
- Sustainable benefits to local communities
- Local participation in decision-making
- Educational components for both the traveler and local communities
What is ecotourism? Photo by Ron Mader via Flikr. [CC BY-SA 2.0]
“Tourism will never be completely sustainable, as every industry has impacts. However, it’s important to know if the revenue created from tourism is reinvested correctly in order to benefit the coral reefs and build a sustainable future. For ecotourism to be sustainable, companies must take responsibility and allocate revenue it generates from its eco-attractions into the protection of reefs instead of further investing in tourist structures and attractions that have negative impacts on the health of these ecosystems.”
Recreational activities can harm coral reefs through:
- Breakage of coral colonies and tissue damage from direct contact such as walking, touching, kicking, standing, or gear contact
- Breakage or overturning of coral colonies and tissue damage from boat anchors
- Changes in marine life behavior from feeding or harassment by humans
- Water pollution
- Invasive species
- Trash and debris deposited in the marine environment
There are lessons to learn from the ecological destruction in Australia, Hawaii, Indonesia and other Pacific Islands where recreational activities are high in the bays of resort-filled areas and multiple-use marine parks.
In a study in Australia, activities such as diving, snorkeling, ski jets, and motor boats with surfing skis had high impacts on coral reef ecosystems. These activities can cause direct damage to the corals and increase pollution in the water. Surfing had less negative impact as it is superficial.
Some activities and their impacts are listed below.
[material below 1-4 is copied from How Does Tourism Affect Coral Reefs?]:
1.) Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
While most diving and snorkeling activities have little physical impact on coral reefs, physical damages to corals can and do occur when people stand on, walk on, kick, touch, trample, and when their equipment contacts corals. Coral colonies can be broken and coral tissues can be damaged when such activities occur. Divers and snorkelers can also kick up sediment that is damaging to coral reefs.
2.) Boating and Anchors
Boats grounding in coral reef habitat can damage corals, as can anchors. Anchors can cause a great deal of coral breakage and fragmentation, particularly from large boats like freighters and cruise ships. Heavy chains from large ships can break or dislodge corals. These damages to corals can last for many years.
Anchoring can also damage the habitats near reefs such as seagrasses that serve as nurseries and habitats for the juveniles of different coral reef organisms. Marinas may inappropriately dispose of oils and paint residues, polluting local waters, and additional pollution may occur during fueling.
3.) Fishing and Seafood Consumption
An abundance of tourist fishing and consumption of local fish stocks may lead to overexploitation and competition with local fishers. Inappropriate fishing techniques such as bottom trawling can cause physical damage to reefs.
4.) Cruises and Tour Boats
These vessels can cause physical damage to reefs through anchoring and grounding, as well as through the release of gray water and human waste into coral reef habitat. Chemicals added to paint used on boats and fishnets that are intended to discourage the growth of marine organisms can also cause pollution in coral reef waters.
The variety of marine life and protected beaches supported by coral reefs provide beautiful sights for sightseers, sunbathers, snorkelers. Healthy reefs support local and global economies. Through the tourism industry and fisheries, coral reefs generate billions of dollars, and millions of jobs, in more than 100 countries around the world. Studies show that on average, countries with coral reef industries derive more than half of their gross national product from them. A good example can be found in Bonaire, a small Caribbean island. Bonaire earns about $23 million (USD) annually from coral reef activities, yet managing its marine park costs less than $1 million per year. A study conducted in 2002 estimated the value of coral reefs at $10 billion, with direct economic benefits of $360 million per year. For residents of coral reef areas who depend on income from tourism, reef destruction creates a significant loss of employment in the tourism, marine recreation, and sport fishing industries.
As we all know, coral reefs are undergoing major stress-related side effects because of human impacts. Through over-use, direct damage and ill-considered tourist operations, the World Wildlife Fund predicts that 24% of the world’s reefs are under imminent risk of collapse through human pressures; and a further 26% are under a longer term threat of collapse. Another significant anthropogenic problem facing coral reefs is sedimentation. Sedimentation (losing soil from upland areas) is an extremely important cause of coral reef destruction. Coastal construction and shoreline development (back to the ecotourism concept) often result in heavy sediment loading. Watersheds cleared of their forests and other vegetation cover is vulnerable to erosion and flooding, resulting in increased levels of sediments reaching the reefs. Excessive sedimentation also exceeds the clearing capacity of some filter feeders and smothers the substrate. It reduces light penetration and can alter the vertical distribution of plants and animals on reefs. Sediments can also absorb and transport other pollutants.
When tourists accidently touch, pollute or break off parts of the reef, corals experience stress. The coral organisms try to fight off the intrusion, but this process often leads to coral bleaching—when corals react in a stressed way to expel the brightly colored algae that live in them this in turn, starves themselves and eventually become completely white. Once corals are bleached, they die and can no longer contribute to the biodiversity of the reef community. Since the disruption of one ocean system impacts all the others, sea grass and mangroves—shallow-water plant species vital to the health of the marine ecosystem—are also threatened by coral stress. Many of these events of accidental coral destruction are caused by recreational activities.
One study examined diver behavior at several important coral reef dive locations within the Philippines and also assessed how diver characteristics and dive operator compliance with an environmentally responsible diving program, known as the Green Fins approach, affected reef contacts. The role of dive supervision was assessed by recording dive guide interventions underwater, and how this was affected by dive group size. Of the 100 recreational divers followed, 88 % made contact with the reef at least once per dive. Divers from operators with high levels of compliance with the Green Fins program exhibited significantly lower reef contact rates than those from dive operators with low levels of compliance.
Although it’s difficult for an individual to stop the entire coral reef dilemma it’s easy to take small but powerful steps in the right direction.
Some of these steps include:
- Don’t touch living coral and don’t pick up wildlife for souvenirs, including shells, coral rubble and plants.
- Be conscious of what you bring with you, for example, reusable water bottles instead of plastic bottles and a backpack for your trash in case there isn’t an area nearby to dispose of waste properly.
- Take the bus instead of a car, and if possible, do your research on the hotels or hostels where you stay.
- Try to stay at hotels that are environmentally friendly. Many coastal hotels dump their graywater—wastewater from laundry, cooking and household sinks—into the ocean, contributing to sedimentation and the contamination of coral reefs.
So, the message of this post is to be aware of corals and precious ecosystems when recreating! Also, try to vacation more sustainably by researching and traveling more eco-friendly. Some places that offer eco-tourism travel are green loons. Travel Tips for eco-traveling can be found below.
The information in this chapter in thanks to content contributions from Audrey Boraski.