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Marine Conservation Strategies

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REEF divers lead conservation efforts

By Roy Mulder

There are many marine conservation groups and individuals, including some specifically or partially dive focused. Given the number of these it is surprising that we aren’t progressing faster with marine protections. Perhaps the best way to move forward is too identify where we have done well and how we can do more to make sure there is a healthy marine environment to dive in. 

As divers there is generally a much better knowledge of marine organisms and many become interested in contributing to make sure the environment is healthy. Many older divers have noticed a significant change in number of fish and fish size. 9/10’s of the world’s big fish are gone and the smaller fish now are producing smaller fish. Habitat destruction caused by draggers and other human activity has left us with a need to address habitat protection or rehabilitation. 

This article will discuss successful strategies and ways to address the challenges the oceans face. One the best success strategies is to form a collaborative group of individuals and organizations.  As easy as this sounds it can often be challenging to get organizations to work cooperatively when they are often competing for the same grants and funding sources. It is also key to find sustainable funding sources, which philanthropic organizations need to provide consistent program delivery. Many organizations are voluntarily managed and driven. 

Long-term programming seems to yield the best results to affect change. As a diver of 44 years I have seen many organizations come and go.  The main driver of many of these organizations is an individual or core group. There are a multitude of small community and unofficial groups that work on conservation. 

There are some very successful citizen science projects that use recreational divers as a source of anecdotal knowledge. One organization that has shown consistent results is the Reef Environmental Education Foundation.  “REEF was founded by underwater photographers and naturalists Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach. The REEF Volunteer Survey Project has trained and involved over 12,000 divers and snorkelers in marine life identification and the collection of fish population and distribution data”  Thanks to REEF’s information we have a much better idea of the marine health frequented by REEF divers.  My training was done many years ago with the cooperation of the Vancouver Aquarium and was in cooperation with the Underwater Council of BC. A good example of how cooperative partnerships can benefit larger groups of divers. Often volunteer operated boards draw from local academic institutions for directors. 

Divers continue to be on the forefront of marine conservation and there seem to be numerous groups interested in protecting specific species like sharks. Over the last number of years shark numbers seem to be in an ever increasing spiral downwards. The driver of at the root of this is the shark finning trade which seems to be a challenge world wide. Although some countries have managed to protect sharks, the majority still condone shark fishing for obtaining fins. This is a good example of how a practice is not driven by a need but rather a cultural practice. Unfortunately shark finning for soup is something considered of high cultural value in some countries. Consequently the elevated cultural status is what drives this market. As some countries have seen the average citizen rise in economic wealth, so has the demand for shark fins continued. We have to consider that to protect the sharks from this brutal practice of fining will require the issue to be addressed with attention being given to the cultural practice that drives the behaviour. One such program that worked was a group called Shark Truth. This group was formed within a south Asian community and proved to be very successful in curbing shark fins to be served at large weddings. Shark Truth created a competition where young couples getting married would agree to not serve shark fin soup in exchange for entering a contest to win an all expense paid honeymoon trip for 2 to a destination that offered up snorkeling with sharks. This program was successful in stopping thousands of shark fins not to be served at traditional weddings. It was a good example of how a group within a culture could adjust the behaviour of that culture. 

Many dive charters now offer dive only charters where before they had allowed spear fishing. Spear fishing is a contentious issue amongst divers and often causes altercations between divers and dive organizations.  Often spear fishers will defend their sport by stating that they can be selective in their hunt and target specific species and not have the waste of by-catch as in many other fishing techniques. This is true, although there is a number of spear fishers who intentionally target the largest fish. This practice leads to the destruction of the older best breeding fish, which are usually the bigger specimens of a specific fish.  As with all other fishing methods, sustainable spear fishing relies on knowing how sustainable the fish being targeted are. This is often determined by fish reproductive rates and other forms of predation (fishing) for a specific species.  

One of the most important things divers bring to marine conservation is knowledge. Divers do a tremendous job of bringing both proper scientific knowledge and anecdotal knowledge of what is happening in specific geographic areas. With the advent of social media this information is much more widely distributed than ever before. This in turn has created more interest and formation of new groups and addition to existing groups who practice marine conservation. As the practice of technical diving has advanced humans are going deeper and longer and providing an ever increasing wealth of knowledge of the ocean. Divers are always welcome additions to organizations that are supporting marine conservation. 

There are many dive organizations that support good marine conservation programs, it is very rewarding to belong to one and has the benefit of getting you out diving more.

Roy Mulder