Diving into the coral controversy

While the remove-or-not-remove the Cambodian flag is dominating the terrestrial sphere, the close-or-not-close diving sites is a hot topic in Thai waters.

Some Bangkok Post readers have sent letters expressing their doubts over the National Park, Wildlife and Plants Conservation Department’s Jan 20 announcement on the temporary closure of 18 diving spots in seven marine national parks. The 14-month closure aims to allow coral reefs affected by bleaching to recover.

Diving ban sceptics think closing the sites will neither solve coral bleaching nor reduce sea temperature, which is believed to be the main cause of the bleaching. Such arguments are unsurprisingly similar to the outcries from divers and tourism operators who are disgruntled by the closure of the money-making dive sites. Global warming, not diving and tourism activities, should be blamed for the massive death of coral in Thai waters, they say.

Some operators have urged the authorities to go after fishing operators instead, because illegal fishing is “more destructive” than tourism.

There is no doubt that the death of corals and degradation of marine resources are caused by a combination of reasons – from global warming-triggered coral bleaching, illegal fishing and uncontrolled tourism, to weak law enforcement.

“Who’s killing the corals?” is an interesting question, but in a time of coral crisis, the more important question should be “What must be done to rescue the corals?”

The blame game must stop now before we lose the corals and other marine resources forever. The temporary closure of diving sites is certainly not a solution to coral bleaching and won’t stop the sea temperatures from rising. But it will reduce disturbances to the fragile marine ecology and give the corals an opportunity to survive.

Fewer tourists at diving destinations means less amount of wastewater, less garbage and less oil sludge seeping into the sea from tourist boats.

The closure of dive sites also has an indirect impact as it sounds a major alarm among the public and concerned parties that the situation is really serious.

Diving and tourism operators’ argument that their businesses are not the cause of coral bleaching – thus they should not take any responsibility – is nothing but a shallow excuse to go ahead with business as usual.

A radio host who organises diving trips even proposed that the ban be lifted to “allow tourists to see for themselves what the coral bleaching phenomenon looks like”. Some divers have denounced the ban as nonsense because divers are “nature lovers” who would never harm nature.

Such a claim might be true, but too many nature lovers visiting an ecologically-fragile site can still cause damage to the very nature they so love.

There are many good tourism operators and conservationist divers, but under the present circumstances tougher measures such as temporary closure of severely-damaged dive sites is needed.

The department’s decision to close popular dive sites is laudable and courageous because we all know how powerful the “tourism revenue” is in this country. Any rules, policies, ideas that could lead to a drop in tourism revenues will face fierce obstruction and eventually die down.

However, closing diving sites is only the first small step towards better protection of the corals. The department must prove it is serious about safeguarding the corals by coming up with other measures to protect marine resources. These include banning snorkelling in shallow-water coral reefs which are prone to human damage, and regulating construction activities in coastal areas to prevent coral damage from soil and sediment.

Apart from issuing announcements and regulations, the department should also improve the marine conservation work and improve financial management to ensure the budget and park fees are used to safeguard natural resources, and are not going into someone’s pockets.