Dive tourism: how to minimize your environmental impact

By UN Environment Programme

The Reef-World Foundation—the international coordinator of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Green Fins initiative—is reminding tourists of the huge environmental impact their actions can have and is calling on people to protect coral reefs by following a few simple guidelines.

“While irresponsible tourism can pose a threat to corals, well-managed tourism can provide many benefits, including economic opportunities for local communities that rely on coral reefs,” explained Chloe Harvey, Director at The Reef-World Foundation.
“By acting as responsible tourists each of us can help reduce the pressures tourism puts on corals and other sensitive marine ecosystems, thus making reefs healthier and more resilient to other global stressors.”

Gabriel Grimsditch, UNEP’s marine ecosystems expert, added: “Coral reefs are hugely valuable in terms of marine biodiversity, harbouring at least a quarter of all marine species and providing support to the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people around the world. So, protecting them from the impacts of a burgeoning tourism industry is vital to the health of our oceans. Tourists can also have a tangible impact on the marine biodiversity hotspots they visit by always following the Green Fins guidelines for best practice. Together, we can all take positive actions that will protect our coral reefs, keeping them healthy and thriving for years to come.”

Including reminders not to touch or step on coral—which can be easily broken and takes a long time to recover from even small breakages—or stress marine life by touching or harassing them, the guidelines include other best practices sometimes less commonly known by tourists.

For example, while most eco-minded tourists wouldn’t dream of removing species they see when diving or snorkelling on coral reefs, they may be happy to buy souvenirs made of coral or shell jewellery as a memento from their trip.

However, it’s important to remember that continued demand from tourists will drive the marine wildlife trade and have a significant cumulative impact. If thousands of tourists each week visit a tourism hotspot and each of those take home one shell souvenir, the result is a vast amount of marine life being taken out of underwater habitats and depriving other organisms of the nutrients they would ordinarily benefit from as they broke down and were recycled into the ecosystem.

It’s also worth noting that in some locations, purchasing marine life (such as shells or coral) or taking these products into another country may even be illegal.

Sunscreen damage

The use of toxic sunscreens is a particularly topical issue following Palau’s recent ban: in January 2020, it became the first country to implement a ban on sunscreen which contains chemicals proven to be harmful to coral. Palau’s ban forbids the sale or use of sunscreen which contains one of 10 harmful ingredients, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate.

The ban came as a result of recent studies which have shown that some chemical compounds in sunscreen may harm coral reefs, even in small doses. These chemicals have been shown to cause bleaching, harm coral DNA and interfere with coral reproduction in lab-based studies.

The Green Fins initiative also takes a proactive, precautionary approach when it comes to sunscreen, recommending people minimize the risk of potentially harmful chemicals washing off and entering the ocean by avoiding sunscreens containing chemicals proven to harm coral reefs, using alternatives which are reef-safe, and covering up when in strong sunshine.

Gabriel Grimsditch concluded: “Reef-World’s global implementation of the Green Fins initiative for sustainable diving and snorkelling has been proven to reduce the negative impact on coral reefs in the local areas the initiative is active. This, in turn, helps increase coral reefs’ resilience to larger global threats, such as the effects of climate change.”

Nature-based solutions offer the best way to achieve human well-being, tackle climate change and protect our living planet. Yet nature is in crisis, as we are losing species at a rate 1,000 times greater than at any other time in recorded human history and one million species face extinction. In addition to important moments for decision makers, including the COP 15 on Biodiversity, the 2020 “super year” is a major opportunity to bring nature back from the brink. The future of humanity depends on action now.

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