“Working Together to Keep Coral Reefs Alive” – Nature has long challenged the hardiness of our reef communities but has never quite managed to completely snuff out the entire life force. The ancestors of today’s reef-building corals go back as far as 200 million years and have even survived the catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs. Continents may have shifted, sea levels may have risen and fallen but these stalwart reef survivors always managed to regroup and form new communities. At least until now.
In modern times, humans are collectively the coral colonies most effective predators. Holiday makers break bits off as souvenirs, shops sell them as treasures, swimmers stand on them for respite, divers crush them with flippers and boat operators drag anchors across the top of them. On a larger scale, the use of ‘rock-hopping’ nets and bottom-trawling fishing equipment, the grounding of boats, the use of cyanide or dynamite to fish and sediment run-off due to deforestation, are all taking their toll on the well-being of this living eco-system.
The Coral Reef Alliance, CORAL, is a member-supported, non-profit organization, dedicated to keeping reefs alive by integrating new eco-system management, encouraging sustainable tourism and forging new community partnerships. Running since 1994, it strives to empower the people who live and work at the front lines of the worldwide battle to save these forests of the deep. They might be a traditional fishing grounds owner, a dive boat operator or a fisheries minister but each, CORAL believes, has a vital stake in the conservation process.
Rene, a diving shop owner in Hawaii, jumped at the chance to join a recent ‘Conservation in Action’ workshop. “It was so motivating,” she said, “to work on a project that actually achieved results.” Management efforts in this area had previously lacked methods to provide environmental education to snorkelers and other tourists. Workshop participants designed tags with eco-friendly guidelines for renting diving gear, learnt how to train tourism professionals and devised charts to help diving companies reduce tourist damage.
Sergio Rivera, an environmental manager from Mexico, says that since his shop became part of CORAL’s ‘Reef Standards Project’, his staff feel more able to educate clients on proper reef etiquette. “We used to feel like we couldn’t say anything to a guest who was touching the reef or feeding the fish,” he said. “We thought they would get mad and get us all in trouble. Now we’ve been trained how to do this pro-actively.”
During the first International Year of the Reef 1997, CORAL hosted online support for event organizers, sponsored a traveling photograph exhibition and set up the very first Bonaire Dive Festival, in the Dutch Caribbean. Now an annual event, it is renowned for its world class scuba diving, wind surfing, nature and snorkeling. For 2008, CORAL will reach out to new audiences with the message that we ‘can’ save our reefs. “Ten years ago, the first Year of the Reef carried a grave message about the future of coral reefs,’ CORAL says. “Today we have the tools to take action.”