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March 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 37, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Is Closing Reefs to Divers the Best Way to Protect Them?

from the March, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Last year saw a severe amount of coral bleaching across the Indo-Pacific region. Thailand, with more than half its reefs affected, took extreme measures in January, making reefs in seven marine national parks off-limits to divers and snorkelers. The country's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment stated that it's a temporary closure and "the key to stopping and reversing the situation is to immediately alleviate the environmental stress to prevent further damage to the affected reefs."

So it's divers causing the damage? Not El Nino's rising sea temperature or overall global warming? And does Thailand really think the reefs will recover by high season? We're skeptical, but decided to ask two reef conservation organizations for their points of view about whether a crackdown on diving will do anything.

Suchana Apple Chabanich, a professor of marine sciences at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and the coordinator for ReefCheck in Thailand, says this is probably the best method for now. "Actually, closing reefs to divers should have been done last year, right after the bleaching. Now it's a bit too late, but probably better than doing nothing. Even though Thailand has marine national parks, it has limited staff and no stringent regulation enforcement, so the reefs have been deteriorated in the past several years. We can't deny there are other factors contributing to reef damages, but tourism is one of them. Activities include discharging polluted water from boats to the reefs, sedimentation from coastal construction, and anchoring boats onto reefs. Closing the sites will allow reefs to have time to recover and allow juvenile corals to grow."

Naneng Setiasih, the Coral Reef Alliance's regional manager in the Coral Triangle, says that while closing the reefs has helped to raise public awareness about coral bleaching and climate change, there are more effective ways to address the issue. "Mass coral mortality requires decades for coral to recover. If the goal is to reduce local pressures on the coral to help them recover from bleaching, then [just] closing dive sites is not the best approach for achieving longterm results."

However, she says, closing the shallower reefs is not a bad move because they are typically exposed to snorkelers by the hundreds. "In Koh Phi Phi, for example, large boats can be seen releasing roughly 150 snorkelers at a time, many of whom have not received a proper environmental briefing. As a result, uninformed snorkelers are found standing on reefs, kicking them, and stirring up sediment, all of which can damage and kill coral."

Setiasih's alternative to site closures: "Use some of the revenue generated through marine recreation to work with marine recreation providers to promote better dive and snorkel practices to their clients. This would really help minimize local impacts to coral reefs, increase their resilience, and foster long-term protection."

What about fishing, which has also taken its toll on Indo-Pacific reefs? The Thai government is also cracking down on illegal fishing in the area, and says it will start education programs about sustainable tourism in an effort to tackle the problem. But unless we get climate change and rising sea temperatures cooled down, there's not a lot anyone can do, even divers.

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