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October 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 28, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Divers Who Do Good

they love the ocean so much, they started nonprofits

from the October, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It's pretty much a given that we divers love the ocean, and the marine life living in it. We also know firsthand that marine life is being depleted, even dying or being destroyed at an alarming rate. That's why we're thankful for many who contribute one way or another to causes that tackle the problems. And it's why we want to draw attention to three divers who started organizations for saving the reefs and protecting marine life. [By the way, Undercurrent is officially a 501(c)(3) organization, and all profits, after expenses, go toward saving coral reef habitats.]

As you'll see, these three are "Joe Divers," sport divers with no prior experience in the dive industry or nonprofit management. They just loved diving so much -- and the places they dive in -- that they wanted to do what they could to keep them pristine for other divers to enjoy. Ultimately, that meant starting a nonprofit organization, either part- or full-time. It takes a lot of time and effort, but they all say their passion for diving makes it worthwhile.

If you are wondering what you can do to protect your favorite dive spot, or you have a good idea for ocean conservation or improved diving, don't think you can't do it -- just do it. As these divers show, anything is possible.

Protecting the Reefs

Don Stark has been diving the Turks & Caicos since 1993. He loved it so much that he bought a condo there for vacations (he lives in Vermont, where he is a consultant in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries). As he spent more time in the islands, Stark noted that the government was chronically underfunded and understaffed, meaning protection of the degrading reefs was subpar. Stark worked as a volunteer on the New England Aquarium's dive team, and he wondered how he could use that experience in his vacation home. He talked this over with his business partner and dive buddy, Dave Stone, and together they started the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund (TCRF) in 2010. ( www.tcreef.org )

The fund is modeled after successful marine parks programs on Bonaire and other islands, raising money by selling $10 dive tags and wristbands to users of the reefs -- divers and snorkelers -- to finance reef protection. The Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs, in charge of the marine parks, didn't want to initiate a park use fee, because the funds would not be steered by the Treasury to the parks. With TCRF around, the Department can steer contributions to Stark and Stone to help them do their job.

The big project now is installing dive and snorkel boat moorings. The government hasn't had funding or staff to maintain the moorings for years. The TCRF raised more than $30,000 to fund that project and hopes to have all moorings back in place within a year, then they plan to add more. After recent incidents where visiting yachts damaged reefs by dragging their anchors, TCRF also plans to install yacht moorings throughout the islands, having raised $16,000 so far to fund that effort. And it just started a coral nursery project to create a source of corals for reseeding the natural reefs, as well as for the artificial reefs it's proposing to install in Grace Bay to take the pressure off two popular snorkeling reefs nearby.

TCRF's goal is to put at least 85 percent of every dollar raised into its projects, and it has so far succeeded. Besides selling dive tags, TCRF's major source of money is a big annual fundraiser held on Providenciales. Aside from the mooring programs and coral nursery, the TCRF needs funding to help pay costs in the legal case it's participating in to stop a Sea World-like dolphin park from being built in the Turks & Caicos (the judge ruled against the plaintiffs last month, but the TCRF is looking to appeal).

Stark now lives more than half the year on Providenciales, because the TCRF has essentially become a full-time job. The downside: "Everything takes twice as long as in the U.S.," says Stark. "It can be frustrating, but once things get moving, it moves fairly quickly. And we have a strong working relationship with the government and other marine organizations here."

His advice for those who want to start a similar organization: Be present. "You need to have a presence in the area you're protecting almost all the time. When opportunities come for publicity and certain activities, you need to have your feet on the ground. It would be hard to do if I didn't have a business partner there, and we coordinate schedules to make sure one of us is there at all times." And don't get frustrated, he says. "Things move a lot more slowly, both in the Caribbean and in nonprofits."

Restoring the Coral

Ken Nedimyer sounds like a proud parent when he talks about his "nursery" off the Florida coast. "Especially when they start getting big, and they're spawning and there's fish living inside there, I get real excited, and I can't wait to see it in five more years," he said. Over the past decade, Nedimyer and a small team have developed new techniques to grow and replace coral damaged by environmental changes. Through his Coral Restoration Fund (CRF), he plants coral as part of the conservation effort in the Florida Keys, and he's now extending his efforts worldwide ( www.coralrestoration.org ).

Nedimyer has been diving since 1970, and made his living as a commercial fishermen, catching fish and lobster in the Keys. During that time, he started seeing fewer fish and more dying reefs. Florida's coral cover has dropped from 50 percent 30 years ago to 7 percent today. "I thought, 'How could I do something about this?' and over time, I started trying things." Nedimyer said. The winning idea came in 1994, when he started an aquaculture farm in the Keys to grow "live rock," rocks submersed in the ocean to get colonized by beneficial bacteria and encrusting organisms that are later placed inside aquariums. High-quality coral started settling on the rock, and Nedimyer could have sold those, but instead he used them to test techniques for re-attaching branches of staghorn coral that had been broken off the rocks. That led to a pilot coral restoration project, which has since led to the CRF, a large-scale coral nursery and restoration program.

The CRF team removes pieces of healthy staghorn and elkhorn coral every six months, then mounts them onto concrete slabs where they grow until they are ready for transplant. Nedimyer recently received government permission to plant 100,000 pieces of coral on protected reefs in the Florida Keys over the next three years. And he is also going global, starting up nurseries in Bonaire and Colombia. "The corals we work with are mostly Caribbean and the need for those is everywhere, so we think we have found a big solution," he says.

The CRF has a big federal grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but Nedimyer relies mostly on private donations to fund operations and pay his three-person staff. (He has 20 local volunteer divers who help out on weekends, and "a whole army" from all over who schedule dive trips just to come help.)

His advice for starting a nonprofit: Besides having a burning passion and surrounding yourself with smart people, just do it. "Take baby steps. One small step will lead to bigger steps and when you look back, you'll be amazed at how far you've come."

Cleaning Up the Ocean

Heather Hamza was a volunteer diver in Los Angeles, cleaning up kelp beds, but she wanted to do more. When she heard about a group that removed derelict fishing nets from wrecks, she signed up to help. But as a technical and cave diver who had previously been certified for the rigorous training from Global Underwater Explorers (GUE), she wanted to use that training (Nitrox dives with double tanks and drysuits) in cleanup efforts so her group could bring up more nets. As if they heard her from afar, two GUE-trained divers from Holland who had founded a nonprofit called Ghost Fishing contacted Hamza to ask if she could help spread their efforts to the States. So when Hamza isn't working at her day job as a nurse anesthetist, she is U.S. coordinator of Ghost Fishing ( www.ghostfishing.org ), directing a group of 50 volunteer divers who remove old fishing nets from wrecks in Southern California to prevent further "ghost fishing" of marine life that can get tangled up in them .

At least once a month, Hamza's group, all GUE-trained, is removing nets on shipwrecks ranging from 60 to 150 feet deep. They go as far out to Catalina Island and as far south as the Coronado Islands, in Mexican waters. Her husband, who runs a dive shop, handles the 501(c)(3) management aspects, while she plan and organizes trips, recruits volunteers and markets the organization. When she's not planning four trips simultaneously (because there are recon trips to survey the wreck and nets before the actual trip to remove them), Hamza is asking dive manufacturers for free gear, and dive shops for discounts on charter boats. Right now, she's working with the new Animal Advocacy Museum in Pasadena, setting up a big display on ghost fishing, and planning a formal presentation so she can also do some fundraising.

But getting money for such a good cause is not so easy. "The state's Department of Fish and Wildlife was interested, but they're broke," she says. "And other groups don't want to fund us. They're scared about liability, because what we do borders on commercial diving. Even when we said we would sign any liability waiver, they said no." Hamza says any money that's donated will go toward boat charter fees, to take the financial load off volunteers, who currently split the costs.

Her newest job role: net recycler. She's talking with Aquafil, an Italian manufacturer of nylon polymers that just started a program to recycle fishing nets into yarn to make carpeting, socks and other textiles. "We bring up hundreds of pounds of nets, and we've just been throwing them into the garbage," says Hamza. "I'm meeting with Aquafil's president soon to talk about how to get these nets to their processing plant in the South." So funding for that aspect would be a good idea, too.

While Ghost Fishing takes over all non-working hours, Hamza says it's what feeds her soul. "The ocean has given me so much pleasure, and this is the least I can do to pay her back." It also helps that she has experts to steer her through back-office duties. "With a nonprofit, it's all about the paperwork, so it's good to have an accountant who knows about nonprofits, and a good lawyer. I don't know about financial and legal stuff, but I'm learning as I go. It's great job training."

- - Vanessa Richardson

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