Responsible marine conservation

There's no escaping it, the finger of blame where marine conservation responsible tourism issues are concerned is firmly pointed at one thing and that thing is us – mankind – and our constant quest for money and 'more'. Yes, careless fishing practices are partly the responsibility of poverty-stricken communities, but their actions can at least be explained as a simple matter of survival combined with the influence from an outdated mindset spread through generations. The rest – overdevelopment of once glorious and naturally abundant oceanside locations; pollution from enormous cruise ships that plough through the seas dropping litter, sewage and various other pollutants in their wake – is all the fault of man; his incessant demands on 'now' and his ignorant disregard for the future of our marine life. Today, 25 percent of all coral reefs worldwide are damaged beyond repair. Fingers crossed the fantastic work done by marine conservationists to repair what they can and educate those who can make a difference is enough to secure the future of the rest.

People & culture

Getting local people on board

Much marine conservation work used to focus solely on looking after the marine life in a destination with little thought to the role that the local community played, both in terms of behaviours they were practicing that may be damaging the marine environment and how they could be better included and educated to prevent further damage. Understandably, this led to travelers questioning what the point was in spending their hard earned cash to join a project and help protect a marine environment if the local population were not working towards or understanding that aim too.

Fortunately, it's fair to say that that tide has well and truly turned, and there is today a massively significant relationship between the local community and the conservationists, so much so that one of the markers of a conservation project's success now is how well it works within the local community. Thanks to conservation projects reaching out to local schools, using the skills and services available to them locally, and welcoming any involvement from locals by providing relevant jobs and training, there is a far greater awareness among local communities of what conservation projects are doing and why, and this is forging a very successful collaboration as well as helping to bring home the message that there won’t be a sustainable tourism future if what the tourists are coming for isn't looked after.

What you can do
Conservation work is what's required of you on a trip, and it's unlikely to be mandatory that you engage with the local community, but doing so will add so much more to your experience - if you don't feel comfortable teaching English to school kids, set up a game of rounders on the beach, or organise a beach clean-up. Any interaction that educates locals about the importance of marine conservation and educates you about their lives and attitudes will be enriching for both parties. Some marine conservation projects work in very remote locations and it can be almost impossible to interact with the locals daily. If this the case, organise a local guide to show you what life is like on the mainland during your downtime and in turn it's likely you'll be asked to share stories of what you're doing there, too.
Polly Alford, from our supplier, ReefCI, shares her opinion on the importance of community involvement: "We have a strong interaction with the community and the local population are really behind what we do. I didn’t realise when I first started this how much of an impact we would have on the local community, but where we’re located in Belize, tourism is still developing, so our guests are helping with that when they’re on the mainland – they’ll stay at local guesthouses and use local taxis, our fruit and vegetables are bought from the local markets, and our tour guides are local too. From a community perspective, our trips are contributing, even just from bringing in lionfish and selling that to local restaurants so that they then have that to sell on."

Becky Edwards, from our supplier, PoD Volunteer, shares her opinion on the importance of community interaction: "Our Thailand project in Koh Tao in is particularly engaged with the local community. They organise an annual conservation awareness festival that’s run for local people and is primarily aimed at local schools to involve the kids on conservation issues. Each year they take a couple of classes of local children and pay for their dive training too. On Koh Tao, there are a huge amount of job opportunities in dive schools, but more often than not they’re taken by international divers, which is something that the projects we work with want to change by trying to get local children diving at a young age to spark their interest. They already have a huge number of locally employed staff on their team, which they are striving to add to continually."

Wildlife & environment

Know your coral code

Having survived tens of thousands of years of natural change, humankind has managed to wreak havoc on coral reefs – the beautiful and life-sustaining underwater organisms that over 25 percent of all marine life calls home.

Shockingly, one quarter of coral reefs worldwide are already considered damaged beyond repair and two-thirds of those that remain salvageable are under threat. Major threats include destructive fishing practices (see below); careless tourism, such as overdevelopment, thoughtless diving, snorkelling and boating, and people touching reefs and collecting coral; pollution from urban and industrial waste, sewage, agrochemicals and oil, which poison the reefs and up the level of nitrogen in the seawater, which effectively suffocates reefs; and climate change – corals simply cannot survive if the temperature of the sea is too high and react by ‘bleaching’, a literal and visually dramatic stress response that eventually leads to death.

Oceanic acidification, disease, sedimentation due to deforestation, coral mining and coastal development are other major concerns that affect the health of coral reefs. There is room for optimism, however, with around 40 percent of the world’s reefs regarded as being relatively healthy and not facing immediate danger. Importantly, there is still time to take action and join the effort to preserve some of the richest natural habitats our planet has to offer.

What can you do?
Make sure any marine conservation vacation you join has strict guidelines on responsible diving and snorkelling and the safe exploration of coral reefs. As climate change is one of the biggest threats to coral reefs around the world, take part in WWF's global Earth Hour, by going 'lights out' for 60 minutes on one day in March each year.

Fishing: too much, too often

One of the most threatening behaviours towards marine life is fishing or, more accurately, the destructive practices that are employed to catch more fish.

Bottom trawling, an industrial and massively detrimental fishing method that has the same effect on marine life as deforestation does on wildlife, destroys the seafloor and rips up beds and coral in its wake. Similarly, dynamite fishing, a particular problem in Southeast Asia that involves dynamite and other explosives being set off underwater prompting dead fish to float to the surface and be scooped up by the bucket load, leaves the underwater environment destroyed and disjointed, like a pile of rubble.

Overfishing is perhaps the one practice where some sense can be applied and in countries such as Thailand, survival is a language far clearer understood than sustainability. The dangers of overfishing, which can affect the ecological balance of coral reef communities causing long-term effects far beyond the plight of the directly overfished population, are thankfully being brought to the fore by marine conservation projects which involve and educate the locals wherever possible in an attempt to break negative cycles.

What can you do?
Other than not become a trawler fisherman, the most valuable thing you can do is engage with the local community in the destination that you visit and try and understand their point of view, as well as educate any willing ears as to what the conservation work is trying to achieve. It’s always worthwhile showing your support for organisations that are trying to combat the problem with overfishing, such as Greenpeace, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘Fish Fight’. The latter is a successful campaign launched to put the issue of sustainable fishing in the laps of our own politicians and supermarkets, which is being supported and continued by the Marine Conservation Society.
Anne Smellie, from our supplier, Oyster Worldwide, shares her opinion on overfishing in Thailand: “In Thailand, the whole local community is now being a lot more careful with their fishing lines and not overfishing; if there’s something that they catch they won’t make any money on then it goes straight back into the sea whereas before it would have died on the boat. You don’t raise awareness in a traditional community overnight, but marine conservation projects becoming more popular and taking place more regularly have meant that the cycle of local fishermen fishing how their fathers fished and how their fathers fished before them is now being broken.”

Responsible tourism tips

Find a responsible tour operator for your trip. A good starting point is conservation rather than tourism when doing your research. Responsible Travel has spent a lot of time screening all the tour providers listed on our site, and has transparent responsible travel policies. We also publish unedited, warts-and-all reviews of our guests' experiences - which frequently include conservation issues. Remember: just as we are encountering the marine life in its natural environment, so it is encountering us. We are in its territory, and some highly intelligent marine life will be studying us at the same time. It's a two way process, with a lot of fascinating interaction going on - this is what often brings people to tears when they come eye to eye with a dolphin or whale. It is intense. Seashells may seem like the ultimate souvenir and it's always tempting to buy one presuming it's been gathered from those naturally washed up on the beach. They are valuable however, and can be ripped directly from the reef causing irreversible damage and death so as pretty as they are, try and resist buying into the demand. A good quality and responsible marine conservation trip will have an expert team of researchers and guides leading the way, and the focus of the trip should be on education rather than sensation. A responsible company will have details of guides on their website, their experience and qualifications. It will also have a responsible marine conservation policy of some sort, with all of the advice being adhered to. A conservationist will give a detailed talk before the trip as well as during and will prepare you for the next day's duties the night before. They should create a vivid understanding of the truly wild nature of the creatures you are hoping to see, and have a good scientific knowledge of species and their respective behavioural patterns. It is important to have realistic expectations when it comes to seeing any marine life in its natural environment. It is not always possible to have a great encounter and the creatures are not there to perform, but doing what comes naturally to them and it is vital that we respect that. If volunteering at a sea turtle hatchery, ensure it is overseen by marine conservation experts, and that it doesn't use tanks to house the hatchlings. These can spread diseases and bacteria, and exhaust the hatchlings before they are released to the ocean. You should never be encouraged to handle turtles unnecessarily, and should only touch eggs and hatchlings with gloves. Read more about responsible sea turtle hatcheries. So called 'tortoiseshell' is in fact made from the shells of the endangered hawksbill turtle. Jewellery and trinkets made of this turtle shell are often available in souvenir stalls, particularly across Latin America and the Caribbean. It is illegal to trade in, and contributes to the hunting of these turtles - read more about why you should never buy these items.
Never feed any fish or marine life - a conservation vacation is about protecting their underwater world, not polluting it. Leave no trace: be extra mindful of removing all of your rubbish, empty bottles or food containers and equipment from the beaches at night. Even if you're going to spend most of your time diving, it's really important to respect the traditions and culture of the local people in the country that you're visiting - make an effort to integrate with the locals and respect their way of life at all times.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: USFWS - Pacific Region] [Getting locals on board: Frontierofficial] [Know your coral code: U.S Geological Survey] [Fishing: too much, too often: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]