Dive operator Andrea Hinrichs has been taking tourists on scuba diving expeditions around islands off Phuket for nearly 30 years.
Through the years she has observed how healthy coral reefs have disappeared, and along with them several kinds of fish.
“Some fish that I often saw in the past are now seldom seen,” she says. “If we don’t take care of our reefs now, our children and grandchildren will be seeing healthy coral reefs only in videos.”
While reef destruction can be blamed on natural causes such as storms, coral bleaching and crown-of-thorns starfish infestation, other causes are man-made, including destructive fishing and fishermen discarding pieces of old fishing net into the sea, water pollution caused by development in coastal areas, tour boats anchoring on coral reefs and, Hinrichs says, “irresponsible diving”.
“Everywhere there are good guys and bad guys,” Hinrichs said at a regional workshop of the Secretariat of the Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (Cobsea) at the Phuket Marine Biological Centre (PMBC), recently.
“Coral reefs are our bread and butter in the dive tourism industry, but not everyone is implementing conservation measures.”
The workshop, organised by the PMBC with support from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), was attended by representatives from East Asian Seas countries, including Australia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Together, the above-named countries play host to more than one-third of the world’s coral reefs, and thus stand to benefit from the Green Fins programme, which was officially launched at the end of the workshop.
With a mandate “to protect and conserve coral reefs by establishing and implementing environmentally friendly guidelines to promote a sustainable diving tourism industry”, Green Fins was first established in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia with help from Unep two years ago. In Thailand it is implemented by the PMBC, which is under the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, in cooperation with the UK-based Reef-World Foundation.
“The three countries were chosen as they are popular tourist diving destinations,” marine biologist Niphon Phongsuwan, head of the Green Fins project at the PMBC, explained. “Unfortunately, some dive operators and resorts are more concerned with making profits than with sustainable tourism practices.”
“Along with their aesthetic qualities, coral reefs constitute an important economic resource for communities that depend on them for their livelihoods as well as the fishing and tourism industry,” Dr Srisuda Jayarabhand, coordinator of the East Asian Seas Coordinating Unit, said in her address.
“As tourism grows in the region, a trend that we are increasingly seeing, these reefs will come under increasing threats and pressures. We hope to see dive operators from countries in the East Asia Seas region come on board to generate action in helping us preserve them.”
The Green Fins programme will provide “green” certificates to dive operators that offer tours according to a set of environmentally-friendly guidelines. Tourists are encouraged to patronise only those dive operators and resorts which display the Green Fins certificates and flags.
Implementing the programme, however, has not been easy, Niphon said.
Two years ago, he and his team-mates sent letters to more than 70 dive operators in Phuket asking them to come to a meeting so that he could explain to them Green Fin’s objectives. Only four attended.
“So we changed our strategy,” Niphon said. “We made direct contact by visiting dive shops and dive clubs, and established a web site.”
Today, Green Fins has nearly 80 dive companies and 120 divers as members, mainly from the six southern provinces of Phuket, Krabi, Phangnga, Satun, Trang and Surat Thani.