How SCUBA divers can protect the oceans

Do One Thing

for the marine environment

Freelanced story, Published in Rodale’s Scuba Diving Magazine, August 2004

Love the ocean? Then it’s time to do something more than enjoy it. The world’s waterways are struggling under the weight of a perverse combination of neglect and too much attention of the wrong kind, and divers are uniquely qualified to help set things right.

The oceans have been getting a lot of ink lately, but the news has been mostly grim. In the last year, two top-level panels of scientists, politicians and activists have issued separate but similar dire warnings about the state of the world’s waterways. The Pew and U.S. Ocean Commissions each identified overfishing, marine pollution, invasive species, coastal development, habitat destruction and climate change as threats to that lovely liquid covering 70 percent of our planet.

Joined by a love for underwater exploration, the dive community can first make sure we’re not making things worse on our dives. But our influence doesn’t stop when we take off the mask and fins. Here are some ways we can take on the myriad ills afflicting our favorite playground/temple/gym/studio/office/pantry.

1) ALWAYS MORE FISH IN THE SEA?

A half-century of high-tech fishing pressure had decimated many of the world’s fish populations, including a headline-grabbing 90 percent reduction in the world’s big predatory fish like sharks, swordfish and tuna reported by a pair of Canadian scientists last year.

DONATE YOUR DIVE TO SCIENCE:
Recreational divers have something extraordinarily valuable to offer scientists seeking to understand underwater life: lots of time below in which to observe marine flora and fauna. In recent years, savvy scientists have been enlisting civilians in their research through reef, fish and sea life monitoring programs.

The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), a nonprofit group of divers, keeps track of how many of which fish its members see during dives, then posts its numbers on the web for researchers and regulatory agencies to crunch. Check the REEF website, www.reef.org, for more information on how you can get involved in the Fish Survey Project. REEF also recently added sea turtles to its survey (http://www.reef.org/data/seaturtle.htm) and, in the Pacific Northwest, divers can monitor invertebrates for the Living REEF Project (http://www.reef.org/data/lrp.htm).

Another good way to put your dives to scientific use is to join REEF’s Great Annual Fish Count in July (http://www.fishcount.org). To find dates for events in your region, visit http://www.fishcount.org/events/calendar.html.

OTHER WAYS YOU CAN HELP:

IN THE WATER:
Please don’t feed the animals. Or touch them. Or ride them. This kind of harassment can turn Flipper into Jaws, or interrupt the animals’ feeding and mating habits enough to put them in danger. You can find the Coral Reef Alliance’s guidelines to whale, dolphin and turtle watching at www.coral.org.

Take only photographs, leave only bubbles. If each diver refrains from taking a souvenir home from the deep, there just might be something left for the next diver that’s worth seeing.

If you hunt or collect for food or trophy, obey the laws and consider your impact. Try not to take too much of any one species, and if you are diving with novices, consider that they will likely follow your example the next time they dive… and so will the friends they bring down below, and so on.

BACK HOME:
Shop for sustainable seafood. Some fish stocks are well-managed; others are being fished to the brink of extinction. Some farmed species offer hope for meeting humanity’s rising food demands; others are destroying coastal environments around the world. It’s tough to know what’s the right thing to buy or eat; luckily, several environmental groups have committed much energy and research to these very questions.

Three of the more popular wallet guides are distributed by Blue Ocean Institute (www.blueoceaninstitute.org), Environmental Defense (www.environmentaldefense.org) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium (http://www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp). The Seafood Choices Alliance, which connects them with fishers, chefs and seafood companies, also publishes a synthesis of the three lists at www.thefishlist.org.

Help reel in the overfishing of marlins. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) is considering conservation measures that would protect white marlin, a beautiful but highly endangered fish whose numbers are down to less than 15 percent of historical levels. Blue marlin aren’t doing much better. Both species are often caught incidentally when commercial boats set longlines for tunas and swordfish. While the United States is regulating longlining boats well, foreign fishing fleets are continuing to devastate billfish like the marlins. That’s why we need to pressure ICCAT to step up its protections for white and blue marlin when it revises its marlin conservation plan in 2005. For more information, see www.savethefish.org, the National Coalition for Marine Conservation’s website.

Send a letter to the head of the U.S. ICCAT delegation at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Department. Ask him to make Atlantic marlin his top priority, and to start campaigning for better conservation in 2005. Mail or fax your comments to: Dr. William Hogarth, NOAA Fisheries, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910 FAX: 301-713-1193.

Support marine protected areas however you can. These “underwater parks” offer marine life a needed refuge to recover from decades of intensifying fishing pressure. If the parks charge or request a user’s fee, think of it as a down payment on the heirlooms we truly owe the next generation of divers.

2) PLASTIC, PLASTIC EVERYWHERE

Our discarded plastic swirls around the globe, carpeting beaches on the most remote islands. Researchers have found trillions of floating plastic pellets swirling around the center of the Pacific, as seabirds swallow our bottlecaps and sea turtles feast upon our shopping bags. Just off the coast of Southern California, researchers say there is 2.5 times more plastic than plankton.

TRASH OUR IGNORANCE OF POLLUTION
Each September, hundreds of thousands of people around the world gather on beaches and below the surface for the International Coastal Cleanup. But at least as important as the debris that’s picked up off the shore – and last year more than 450,000 people collected more than 7.55 million pounds of junk – is the valuable data on ocean currents and marine pollution that researchers glean from the notes of volunteers. For more information on this year’s big event, scheduled for September 18, visit www.coastalcleanup.org.
For more information about how to run an underwater cleanup, visit CORAL’s website at http://www.coralreefalliance.org/parks/uwcleanupguide.html

OTHER WAYS YOU CAN HELP:

IN THE WATER:
Be an underwater vacuum cleaner. Fill your BC (buoyancy compensator) pockets and/or the cuffs of your wetsuit at your ankles or wrists with trash. It will take little time, it won’t slow you down much, and your simple action will leave the reef cleaner than what you found.

Cut away at the problem, one line at a time. Fishing lines are strangling reefs in every ocean, and your knife is the best solution to the tangled mess. Please be careful not to pull on the line, which could cause even more damage to the reef than just leaving it. Instead, carefully cut away any lines or nets – even clothing – you see choking a reef.

ON THE BOAT:
Boat responsibly, taking care not to lose anything overboard. Everything on your boat should be secure, and trash should be bagged and returned to land. Also, use a  clean-burning 4-stroke outboard engine and keep up with engine maintenance. For more information, see CORAL’s Handbook on Sustainable Tourism for Marine Recreation Providers. (http://www.coralreefalliance.org/programs/tourismhandbook.html)

BACK HOME:
Reduce, reuse, recycle. True classics never go out of style. The fewer disposable containers we use, the fewer we’ll see in the ocean and shorelines. Dispose of toxic wastes – especially batteries – in the safest way available to you; many communities collect such wastes.

Don’t use Styrofoam, ever. Scientists with Deep Ocean Exploration Research report spotting Styrofoam broken into tiny pieces in some of the deepest parts of the ocean. Because it doesn’t decompose, it can cause big digestive problems for tiny animals like brine shrimp and other bottom-feeders.

Sign online to require cruise ships to clean up their act. Congress will soon be considering the Clean Cruise Ships Act of 2004. Ask your representatives in Washington D.C. to co-sponsor a bill that would force cruise ships to adhere to the same Clean Water Act regulating waste discharges from cities and industries. For more information on this campaign led by Oceana, visit http://ga0.org/campaign/cleancruiseact.

3) A LITTLE LESS BLEACH, PLEASE

Coral reefs are dying in droves, whether in one fell swoop – as in 1998, when we lost about 16 percent of the world’s corals to bleaching brought on by climate change’s scout team, El Nino and La Nina – or death by a thousand cuts, as ornamental fish collectors introduce them to cyanide or dynamite.

Some coral loss is natural; hurricanes, for instance, have always wreaked havoc on them. But other threats to coral health trace back to our oil addiction, as oil from our cars and fertilizer from our farms turn toxic the waters the world’s plants and animals need even more than us. In a 2002 roundup of the state of the world’s reefs, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network reported that 88 percent of Southeast and East Asia’s reefs were under moderate to very high human pressures.

GIVE REEFS THEIR CHECKUP

Volunteers in more than 60 countries record their observations of coral reef health for Reef Check, a community-based reef monitoring program with United Nations’ recognition. The information that divers gather helps international and local agencies plan for preserving and restoring coral reefs; for more information, go to www.reefcheck.org.

Similarly, ReefBase, a comprehensive global information system with a vast amount of online information about coral reefs, has volunteers compile reports that help monitor the phenomenon of bleaching. When corals “bleach” or expel the algal cells that live inside their tissue, they look dead but are often still alive. A wide range of environmental factors can cause bleaching, but high sea temperatures like those of 1998 cause the worst episodes – and as such, might be the “canary in the coalmine” for climate change’s affect on marine life. Divers can help scientists understand coral bleaching by filing reports; see http://www.reefbase.org/input/bleachingreport/index.asp

OTHER WAYS YOU CAN HELP:

ON SHORE:
Replant native plants and mangroves. Seagrasses, mangrove trees and native vegetation protect reefs in many ways: by trapping sand and sediment that otherwise covers and smothers corals; by filtering toxins out and by sharing the brunt of ferocious storms.

BACK HOME:
Educate your fellow divers. Spread the word about coral reef bleaching and enlist fellow divers in the effort to understand it. Teach young divers to care for their environment and how to work to preserve it.

Break the oil addiction. The less you drive, the more you take public transportation, car pool or bike, the fewer fossil fuel emissions trickling their way into our oceans. A 2002 National Academy of Sciences study found that the oil flowing from our streets and driveways into the oceans amounts to one Exxon Valdez oil spill, or nearly 11 million gallons, every eight months.

Choose non-toxic household products, and avoid using fertilizers and pesticides on your lawn and garden. The nutrients and toxins pouring into our rivers and streams with each rain reflect a choice we can reverse if we recognize that underwater environments suffer when our flood of nutrients starve the water of oxygen.

Watch your wastewater. On land, that means washing your car on your lawn, or at a car wash that recycles the used water. Don’t let the dirty water and soap run off into the storm drains, which eventually drain into the ocean. Route rooftop downspouts into landscaped areas for the same reason. At sea, that means using a pump-out facility for your wastewater instead of hoping dilution is the solution to your personal pollution.

4) WEARING OUT OUR WELCOME

We may be loving our underwater environment to death. As more and more divers flock to the world’s reefs, the evidence of habitat degradation and destruction piles up. Some of the U.S.’s prized reefs in Hawaii and the nearby Caribbean have become degraded after decades of heavy tourism, anchor-dragging and, yes, careless divers.

A PICTURE’S WORTH SEVERAL THOUSAND WORDS
With the rapid spread of underwater and now digital cameras, divers have more opportunities to record the underwater environment the way they found it. A nonprofit website that provides photos to universities, nonprofit groups and government agencies, the Marine Photobank seeks submissions from amateur photographers for their growing visual archive of the world’s true sunken treasures. See www.marinephotobank.org for information about how you can submit your photos.

OTHER WAYS YOU CAN HELP:

IN THE WATER:
Hands off! Don’t touch anything on a dive, not with your feet, not with your hands, not with your respirator. Even slight contact can damage coral; some can sting you back. For reminders and tips on how to avoid corals, go to http://www.coralreefalliance.org/parks/divingguide.html

Keep coral and sea life where it belongs. Avoid buying souvenirs made of coral, turtles or any marine life, and don’t bring anything home for your fishtank, either. It’s often illegal, but it’s never smart for someone who likes to see these things underwater. The U.N. Environment Programme reports that the aquarium trade snatches more than 20 million tropical fish and as many as 10 million other marine animals each year. When fish are caught using sodium cyanide, coral reefs suffer as well. If you do buy pet fish, look for certification by the Marine Aquarium Council.

Learn a new species each time you dive. Take a cue from birders and keep a “lifelist” of each new plant or animal you see on dives. You’ll impress your friends and fellow divers with your vast knowledge and experience, and you might encourage other people to care enough to work to preserve the biodiversity we love.

ON THE BOAT:
Watch that anchor. Avoid dropping anchors on coral reefs; where possible, seek out a mooring buoy. Mooring buoys enable many boats to tie down at the same location, and spare corals from the constant disturbance.

When possible, launch from the beach. That way you save gas, time and money.

Brief your fellow divers on their environmental impact. The more they know, the less likely they’ll damage the reefs. For more information, see the guidelines at
http://www.projectaware.org/americas/english/tfd.asp and http://www.coralreefalliance.org/parks/divingguide.html.

Go ahead, spread yourself thin. If your dive sites are packed, find another, or rotate with other divers. Fire marshals have yet to set a “maximum occupancy” for coral reefs, but a crowd can’t help an already stressed species.

BACK HOME:
Put your money where your mask is. Before you leave home, research your environmental impact before you go in search of a foreign reef to dive or resort to visit. Some countries have more enlightened zoning and marine-protected areas than others; seek them out. Search for a dive shop, resort or boat that adheres to ecotourism principles. A good list to start with can be found on Project AWARE’s website: http://www.projectaware.org/americas/english/EcoOperators/

Work to bring mooring buoys to any dive sites you patronize. They don’t install themselves. For ideas and inspiration, see the Coral Reef Alliance’s Handbook on Mooring Buoy Installation and Maintenance (http://www.coralreefalliance.org/divein/eventideas/mooringbuoys.html) and Project AWARE’s planning guide (http://www.projectaware.org/americas/english/mb.asp)

Buy the specialty license plate supporting oceans. A few states offer them: If you live in Florida, a $25 specialty license plate urges people to “Protect Our Reefs” and also raises money for research and reef-restoration programs.

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