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January 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 42, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Itís Not Just the Fishermen who Are Destroying Reefs

from the January, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In the past 45 years, Caribbean coral cover has declined from 35 percent to 16 percent. Fish populations have plummeted due to overfishing. And fishers are having a hard time making a living. Meanwhile, scuba dive tourism has increased dramatically.

A recent study by Dr. Ayan Johnson and Dr. Jeremy Jackson found that 94 percent of divers acknowledged that their diving damages the reefs. "That industry needs to be regulated too if reefs are going to have a chance at recovering," said Jackson. Johnson interviewed 388 fishers and scuba instructors, hoping to understand how they use the ocean, how they perceive the reefs and fisheries, and what types of management they would support. Their answers give cause for hope: The social climate is primed for policymakers to put strong conservation measures in place for the benefit of both groups.

According to Johnson's research, fishermen are more aware than divers of the degradation of their reef ecosystem but don't acknowledge much of the blame for it. But divers are also to blame -- especially as their numbers grow -- because of poor behavior under water. Many novices kick the reefs, and tourist demand for local seafood has depleted the very fish they want to see when they dive.

"Most jarring were the words of a 15-year-old fisher who told me that fishers used to show the size of their catch vertically [holding his hands off the ground]," said Johnson. "Now they show fish size horizontally [holding his hands shoulder width apart]. And this all happened in the past few decades."

Meanwhile, dive instructors say showing visitors seahorses and rare marine life is great for their business, but the halo of reef damage left behind by tourists bumping sensitive corals continues to degrade the already damaged environment.

The study found that most fishers (89 percent) perceived catching fewer fish than previous generations. An overwhelming 96 percent of fishers and 94 percent of divers with over five years of local experience reported that some species they used to catch or see are rare or missing now. The numbers of large grouper, snapper and parrotfish populations have plummeted across the region, along with the coral itself. Meanwhile, invasive species like lionfish have been able to establish themselves throughout the region, further threatening endemic fisheries.

Jackson and Johnson offer up some policy reforms, including establishing large marine reserves that are closed to both fishing and diving, limiting the number of fishers and divers, and easing the transition to more sustainable use of coral reef resources. They believe their study shows that both fishers and divers are ready for meaningful management actions.

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