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Turning the Tide on Marine Tourism

A Special Place

The island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands is possibly my favorite place on Earth. It has gorgeous beaches, restaurants that make you salivate by just thinking about them, and weather that simply cannot be beat. It also has an ocean featuring infinite shades of blue, from the deepest navy to the lightest teal. It’s one of those oceans that simply invites you to jump in. 

Overlooking Trunk Bay on St. John, USVI. 

Photo Credit: ©Lily Huffman

During my family’s visits to St. John, we spend our time traveling to as many different beaches as we can to sample all of the many off-beach reefs the island has to offer. Here in St. John, many of the reefs are fringing reefs. Fringing reefs are the most common type of coral reef, extending out seaward from the shore and surrounding the island.

Snorkeling in these reefs is like swimming in a jewelry box. The water’s surface sparkles like diamonds, reflecting the sun. Fishes, sponges, and corals are rich with color like precious stones. Sponges stand statuesque like emeralds, the underbellies of stoplight parrotfish blaze like rubies, and the sea fans wave like molten amethyst.

It all seems beautiful and perfect.

But it’s not.

While you or I might use the utmost care while snorkeling not to disturb the corals and other organisms living in the reef, others do not, whether through ignorance or indifference. It’s dismaying to look up from inspecting a Christmas-tree worm to find a tour group, or a family from the beach, standing on or kicking the coral while trying to get the attention of others. Or seeing someone wildly kicking up the sediment while trying to stay afloat and clear the fog from their mask without moving into deeper water or back to shore. 

Christmas-tree worms inmustard hill coral. 

Photo Credit: ©Lily Huffman

Trouble in Paradise

What people don’t like to talk about when describing the reefs in the Caribbean is the coral rubble, the bleached coral heads, and the sections of living reef that grow smaller and smaller each year you go back to visit.

Since the 1970s, more than 50% of the Caribbean coral reefs have been lost. Although there is some correlation between Caribbean reef loss and climate change, the increasing local pressures from tourism, overfishing, and pollution are bigger contributors. 

Damage to coral reefs is caused by many factors, including oceanacidification, pollution, and careless divers. 

Photo Credit: ©Lily Huffman

Everything in Moderation

Like most things, tourism in coastal areas is good-- in moderation. One of the benefits of coastal and marine tourism is the revenue it generates. 80 percent of tourism takes place in coastal areas, providing lots of opportunity for job creation and generation of revenue. In general, travel and tourism account for about 9.5% of the global GDP and almost 9.0% of total employment. Coastal tourism drives the need for hotels, restaurants, and beach-related rentals such as towels and chairs, or SCUBA and snorkel equipment.

Not only does tourism benefit local economies, but it also can help conservation. When people have opportunities to SCUBA dive or to snorkel in the ocean, it allows them to interact with nature. Seeing a picture of a sea turtle, or even looking at one in an aquarium, is a very different experience than being in the water with one in the wild. This close interaction with marine life inspires people to want to help conserve these environments, more so than just reading about them in a book would. But it also gives tourists the chance to see firsthand the damage being done to these environments.

A green sea turtle in a seagrass bed. 

Photo Credit: ©Lily Huffman

Tourism as a Double-Edged Sword

While tourism does have its benefits, it also has its dangers. Swimming in the reefs is all fine and good, as long as everyone uses the utmost caution not to disturb the corals or other organisms that live there. But, as described above, this is not always the case.

Having access to coral reefs that you can swim out to from a beach is great! However, in places like St. John, very few of these beaches have any obvious regulations. The most guidance present at most of these beaches is a faded sign or two asking people not to kick the coral. As a result, anyone can snorkel at these locations, regardless of their experience level. It is not like a guided tour in which the guides remind people to be careful of their fins and stay out of the shallow areas.

Due to the lack of guidance or regulation, careless or over-enthusiastic snorkelers, or divers, end up kicking up sediment and knocking down or breaking corals. That damage takes a long time to heal. In a year, a large stony coral can only grow between 5 and 25 millimeters (that’s only 0.2 to 1 inch). Branching corals can grow up to 20 centimeters in a year, but they are also more fragile than stony corals, and thus more easily broken. As a result, what is broken or damaged in an instant can take years to grow back. Although the experience and opportunity is wonderful, it sometimes does more harm than good.

Pillar coral 

Photo Credit: ©Lily Huffman

In addition to the dangers that come with the direct interaction of tourists with the wildlife, tourism also brings with it coastal development. One of the primary threats of coastal development is increased erosion and sedimentation. Construction of roads, hotels and other structures causes sediments to enter coastal waters. These sediments then end up being deposited on corals, depriving them of sunlight, retarding their growth or even smothering them and allowing algae to overgrow the reef. Construction also can destroy mangrove habitat, a natural filter for sediments, thus exacerbating the problem.

Development can also lead to pollution problems if the sewage generated by hotels, resorts or homes is released into coastal waters without appropriate treatment. In addition to causing dangers to humans through the introduction of pathogens, sewage pollution also damages coastal habitats through nutrient enrichment. Nutrient enrichment encourages the growth of algae. When the algae die, bacteria come in to decompose them, depleting the water of oxygen and in some cases depriving the water of oxygen. Without oxygen most marine life cannot survive. 

What a Drag

In addition to imprudent tourists, infrastructure development, and improper waste treatment, careless boaters also cause habitat destruction. Islands like St. John do have strict mooring and anchoring regulations. Guides outlining mooring and anchoring procedures are provided for boaters, including specifications for various boat sizes. An example of a Virgin Islands mooring guide can be found here.

However, despite the regulations, guides and available moorings, anchors still damage reefs and the seabed. Negligent or ignorant boaters still anchor in areas where they are not supposed to, such as on top of a seagrass meadow or a coral reef. Worse yet, improper anchoring can  cause the anchor to drag across the seafloor, multiplying damage to the seafloor.

Shaving brush algae in a seagrass bed. 

Photo Credit: ©Lily Huffman

One dramatic example of the damage caused by an anchor drag occurred in the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2013. The super yacht White Cloud was improperly anchored outside of an approved anchoring site. Strong winds caused the anchor to drag, thus destroying a large swath of coral reef. Charges were filed and fines imposed, but it will take years for the reef to recover. More information on this event can be found here

Protections and Precautions

As a result of the stress put on reefs from divers and snorkelers, especially in high-use areas, the concept of a “diver carrying capacity” was established. This idea is related to the concept of resilience: the capacity to which the reef can bounce back from and withstand the stresses that are placed on it. The reefs can only handle so many tourists before the stresses placed on it become too much, and the environment begins to degrade. This idea first came from a study conducted in Bonaire that indicated that areas with more divers had a lower percentage of coral cover. Limiting the number of divers at a specific site either per day or per year can help reduce the stress put on these reefs by tourist activity.

In addition to limiting access to popular reef sites, another action that has the potential to mitigate reef damage is, simply, education. You do not need a whole college course to learn some basic facts about coral habitats. It’s not likely that tourists enter marine environments with the intent to harm or destroy them. However, it is hard to know to be careful when corals look so sturdy and no one has ever explained their fragility. Two actions could help keep these reefs healthier. First is better signage. Currently on St. John, most signs pertaining to corals and reef damage are very faded, and not displayed in a way that would prompt tourists to look at them. Making the signs more aesthetically appealing to look at, and placing them where tourists are more likely to see them could prompt more people to stop and take a quick look. Second, at the time any diving or snorkeling gear is rented, dive shops could give a brief information session on how to respect and protect the reefs. 

Photo Credit: ©Lily Huffman

Despite its downsides, marine tourism is a valuable industry for coastal countries and communities. However, this particular type of tourism is lucrative only as long as the marine environments that people are drawn to remain healthy and worth traveling to see. The health of coral reefs impacts not only tourism, but artisanal fishing, livelihoods and economies, biodiversity, natural products, and coastal protection. And I would argue that for me it impacts lasting special places as well. That’s seven out of the ten goals of the Ocean Health Index. What this demonstrates is that the seemingly disjointed aspects of marine health and human well-being are actually interconnected. Damaging and destroying coral reefs isn’t just bad for the environment, its bad for you and me, socially, environmentally, and economically. 

"A healthy ocean sustainably delivers a range of benefits to people now and in the future"-OHI

Photo Credit: ©Lily Huffman