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February 2004 Vol. 30, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Is a “No Touching the Reef” Policy Sound?

a reader wonders, a scientist answers

from the February, 2004 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Undercurrent applauds dive operators who are conscientious about preserving the reefs that provide their livelihoods. But to some divers, "no-touch" restrictions can become pretty restrictive in themselves.

That's how a longtime Undercurrent subscriber felt while diving with Conch Club Divers on Little Cayman last year. When the divemaster warned everyone not to touch anything underwater, our subscriber assumed he meant "anything living." On his second dive, says our correspondent, "I was taking photos and using a twofinger touch (on very dead substrate covered with algae) to steady myself in a cut in the wall, when the dive police came over and removed my hand from the dead coral. It seems they don't want us to touch anything, period."

Divemasters told him that even if the coral seemed dead "there may be just one coral cell trying to regenerate." They also advised him not to touch or lay on the sand as "there might be a jawfish you could hurt."

Conch Club Divers Manager Bill Christoffers, himself a Cayman marine conservation officer, confirms that his operation prohibits touching or taking anything at any dive site. They also don't feed fish, not even scraps, says Christoffers, adding, "We're trying to protect things for the next generation." Christoffers maintains that the policy is not difficult to comply with. Accidental offenders are warned during their surface interval, he says, but continual violators "will find their gear packed up and waiting for them on the dock."

But our correspondent felt the divemasters' priorities were skewed. "They never tried to show us the pipefish or anything else they talked about during the briefing," he said. "Maybe I'm wrong in my thinking, but I really found these guys to be over the top in their zeal to protect the reef system," he said, particularly when the divemasters "joked about bringing machetes on board to deal with anyone who touches anything."

On the other hand, stringency -- like beauty -- is often in the eye of the beholder. In Undercurrent's 2003 Chapbook, reader Steve Dingeldein of Burlington, N.C., praised the Conch Club dive staff, saying, "they do not hover over you underwater. They watch out for the environment and indicated when we were getting too close to the corals." Clearly, Dingeldein didn't experience the same level of frustration.

Conch Club's Christoffers points out that many Cayman dive operators are "stout conservationists" with similar hands-off policies. So to get a better understanding of the no-touch policy, we contacted Dr. William Alevizon, a marine biologist with the prestigious Wildlife Conservation Society, wellknown in the industry for his ardent approach to conservation. Alevizon told us:

"It may seem like 'overkill' to emphasize and even enforce a notouch rule for divers around coral reefs, but from an ecological perspective, and based upon science's best current understanding of the relationship between dive pressure and reef degradation, it makes good sense.

"The dive industry has worked hard to promote and
instill a misguided and ultimately unsustainable
sense of 'rights' for divers and dive operators to do
just about anything they want to do in the water."

"The reasons (at least to me) are straightforward: (a) many or most sport divers are not able to reliably always distinguish between 'live' and 'dead' coral colonies or areas on a coral colony (b) many soft corals are often mistaken for plants by novice divers who then feel free to touch them (c) touching or too closely approaching the sandy or silty substrate raises clouds of sediment which damage sensitive corals, and (d) there is solid scientific evidence that there is a direct relationship between the number of divers visiting a reef and the percentage of live coral cover.

"Experimentation has also shown that this type of damage can be alleviated somewhat (although NOT by any means completely eliminated) by carefully educating divers and making sure they follow the rules. So, for a dive resort or dive-tourism economy, the quality of a reef area can be better preserved under higher levels of dive pressure IF divers are carefully instructed and even forced NOT to touch anything! A reef protected in this way will be able to sustain larger numbers of divers over time, translating into more revenue from dive tourism in the long run.

"It would not seem extreme at all if in, say, a U.S. National Park, visitors were instructed to stay on a marked hiking trail and not touch or remove any plants or animals or even rocks. This is commonplace and does not cause heartburn to most visitors.

"It sounds so extreme in the dive world because the dive industry has worked hard over the last thirty years to promote and instill a misguided and ultimately unsustainable sense of 'divers' rights' for divers and dive operators to do just about anything they want to do in the water. Therefore, the idea of dive guides actually enforcing strict environmental regulations appears somewhat 'over the top' as your reader put it -- though such rules and their enforcement would be accepted as completely appropriate and necessary forms of regulation within terrestrial ecosystem protection areas, such as national and state parks, wildlife refuges, etc.

"Sport divers need to unlearn the misguided messages regarding 'divers' rights' that they have been fed by the dive industry, whose primary purpose after all is to increase revenue rather than protect anything. Instead, they need to look at the oceans as they do our national parks -- a heritage that is there for all to enjoy, but one that will only endure if everyone does their part to act responsibly by learning and observing sensible and justifiable rules and regulations. In the case of coral reefs, the 'leave only bubbles' ethic is appropriate."

So, while our correspondent is clearly a level-headed, conscientious, conservation- oriented diver, I must side with our expert. For the sake of the reef, I'll keep my hands to myself, my hoses tucked away, and my feet off the bottom. And, while I'm doing so, in return I hope my guide will put away his police badge and point out a few pipefish.

-- Ben Davison

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