By: Chad Scott
Did you know that some of the most successful programs to save coral reefs are not done by big governments but by local reef managers and recreational SCUBA divers? All over the world, local marine conservation organizations are springing up to protect and restore the ecosystems their communities depend on.
Surprisingly, in many cases, these initiatives have proven more successful than the large projects of governments and international organizations.
Why we need to act now to save coral reefs
Globally, about a billion people depend directly on coral reefs. For many island nations, their entire economy and culture will be lost without them. But, today, coral reefs are the fastest declining ecosystem, with about half the planet’s reefs gone over the last seventy years.
While the problem has been evident for decades, governments have been slow to act or have acted in ways that did not address the real issues. But local communities are not standing idly by. They are taking efforts into their own hands and making significant positive impacts.
Local, community-based reef managers rely most on coral reef ecosystems and are in the best position to save them. This is because every reef, like every community, is unique and has its issues and needs.
How are local reef managers making an impact?
Because each reef is unique, the top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions of big governments and international NGOs don’t work. Instead, bottom-up, tailored solutions that draw on a wide range of tools and local strengths are needed.
A recent study from 2020 evaluated several long-term coral restoration programs for their impact based on six indicators of reef health. This included both well-funded US programs and self-funded local programs in the Indo-Pacific. Both US programs, including the largest one in the world that receives around $6 million per year in funding, showed little to no improvements in most of the factors assessed.
However, the local programs in Thailand and the Maldives showed much better improvement, with the Thailand program significantly improving all parameters assessed.
Why are local managers so successful?
The coral conservation program in Thailand receives no outside funding, yet had the most significant impact on reef health and abundance. The reason for this is quite simple; they are connected to the reef and know what it needs.
That program is operated through a dive center, one of the businesses most reliant on attractive and healthy reefs. They are also in the ecosystem every day. They understand what threats it is facing, know its history, and are in the best position to save it.
Just like any garden or farm, the people living with the land are the ones who know how to care for it, not a government or university who only knows about it through pictures and literature. And these programs need your help.
How can you get involved?
Many community-based reef managers operate in a for-profit or social enterprise model, relying on eco-tourism to fund their efforts. Visitors coming to SCUBA dive can pay extra to receive training in the techniques to monitor, protect, and restore reefs. The money they pay covers staffing and materials, and the time they spend helps provide volunteer power to make essential projects successful.
This model is a win-win for all involved. First, the conservation center gets funding and workforce from your visit. Second, you get to learn new skills, help out on critical projects, and see how the money you spend goes to help programs in need. Lastly, the community benefits from improved reef health and the growth of sustainable businesses over extractive ones.
If you are a diver that wants to give back while learning something new, be sure to look for a local marine conservation center on your next trip.
Remember that, as a tourist, you vote with your wallet every time you spend money. You decide which businesses thrive in any dive location, so be sure it’s the ones that are proactive in conserving coral reefs for the future.
Chad has a Master's Degree in Marine Ecology. He has started two of his own marine conservation companies - a reef management program in Thailand and a non-profit marine conservation training teaching and certification company based in the US.