Green diving

The Green Fins programme aims to educate divers and protect coral reefs

Dive operator Andrea Hinrichs has been taking tourists on scuba diving expeditions around islands off Phuket for nearly 30 years. Through the years she has observed how healthy coral reefs have disappeared, and along with them several kinds of fish.

"Some fish that I often saw in the past are now seldom seen," she says. "If we don't take care of our reefs now, our children and grandchildren will be seeing healthy coral reefs only in videos."
While reef destruction can be blamed on natural causes such as storms, coral bleaching and crown-of-thorns starfish infestation, other causes are man-made, including destructive fishing and fishermen discarding pieces of old fishing net into the sea, water pollution caused by development in coastal areas, tour boats anchoring on coral reefs and, Hinrichs says, "irresponsible diving". "Everywhere there are good guys and bad guys," Hinrichs said at a regional workshop of the Secretariat of the Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (Cobsea) at the Phuket Marine Biological Centre (PMBC), recently.

"Coral reefs are our bread and butter in the dive tourism industry, but not everyone is implementing conservation measures."
The workshop, organised by the PMBC with support from the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), was attended by representatives from East Asian Seas countries, including Australia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Together, the above-named countries play host to more than one-third of the world's coral reefs, and thus stand to benefit from the Green Fins programme, which was officially launched at the end of the workshop.
With a mandate "to protect and conserve coral reefs by establishing and implementing environmentally friendly guidelines to promote a sustainable diving tourism industry", Green Fins was first established in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia with help from Unep two years ago. In Thailand it is implemented by the PMBC, which is under the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, in cooperation with the UK-based Reef-World Foundation.
"The three countries were chosen as they are popular tourist diving destinations," marine biologist Niphon Phongsuwan, head of the Green Fins project at the PMBC, explained. "Unfortunately, some dive operators and resorts are more concerned with making profits than with sustainable tourism practices."
"Along with their aesthetic qualities, coral reefs constitute an important economic resource for communities that depend on them for their livelihoods as well as the fishing and tourism industry," Dr Srisuda Jayarabhand, coordinator of the East Asian Seas Coordinating Unit, said in her address.
"As tourism grows in the region, a trend that we are increasingly seeing, these reefs will come under increasing threats and pressures. We hope to see dive operators from countries in the East Asia Seas region come on board to generate action in helping us preserve them."
The Green Fins programme will provide "green" certificates to dive operators that offer tours according to a set of environmentally-friendly guidelines. Tourists are encouraged to patronise only those dive operators and resorts which display the Green Fins certificates and flags.
Implementing the programme, however, has not been easy, Niphon said.
Two years ago, he and his team-mates sent letters to more than 70 dive operators in Phuket asking them to come to a meeting so that he could explain to them Green Fin's objectives. Only four attended.
"So we changed our strategy," Niphon said. "We made direct contact by visiting dive shops and dive clubs, and established a web site."
Today, Green Fins has nearly 80 dive companies and 120 divers as members, mainly from the six southern provinces of Phuket, Krabi, Phangnga, Satun, Trang and Surat Thani. Dive operators who join Green Fins agree to brief divers on Green Fins' environmentally-friendly diving and snorkelling guidelines before they go into the water, and to provide training for employees and customers on how to interact with marine life and how to behave underwater.

"Studies show that divers who have not been given a briefing cause more damage to coral than whose who have," Niphon said. "And female divers and beginners cause more damage than males and diving experts."
Damage is mostly caused by inexperienced divers stepping on coral or brushing coral with their fins.
Dive operators also agree to act as responsible role models for their guests, and to participate in regular underwater clean-ups, use or help instal mooring buoys for their boats and prohibit the sale of coral and other marine life.
Most importantly, they agree to do regular coral reef monitoring in diving sites that they regularly visit by ticking a waterproof Reef Watch log book provided by Green Fins.
"Their reports will provide scientists with data on changes in coral reef health so that we can take relevant action where possible," Niphon said.
"For example, if the damage to reefs is due to lack of mooring buoys, we can ask the government agencies concerned to instal buoys."
However, there are times when nothing can be done, such as when members recently reported finding dead fish and other marine life in coral reefs. "There's nothing we could do, as it was caused by a natural phenomenon called a 'cool upwelling', which deprives the water of oxygen," Niphon explained.
"Cool upwellings can happen at any time, but this year they have been more severe than in most years. They can be caused by several factors, including a dipole, in which part of the water level in the Indian Ocean is lower than other parts, like an unbalanced scale."
Members' reports also ring alarm bells about such natural phenomena as coral bleaching and red tide, or infestation of crown-of-thorns starfish, which feed on coral. On the other hand they also report good news, such as the regrowth of coral damaged by the tsunami.
Niphon expects Green Fins to contribute to increased awareness of good diving practices, increased protective measures for coral reefs, increased coral reef data and information at dive sites, and improved coral reef health.
"It means more work - and some people don't like the extra work - but I am for a project that basically promotes the green message," says Andrew Hewett of the Adventure Club in Phi Phi, who is known at the PMBC for his volunteer work in coral reef rehabilitation. "We need something that can promote among tourists proper responsibility to reefs before they actually get to the reefs, and Green Fins may just be the medium. There's enough support [among dive operators] for Green Fins to be successful."
"No trouble, it's not extra work," says Hinrichs of Santana Diving and Canoeing in Patong. "Like I said, we have to protect the coral reefs."
Niphon is confident that other countries in the Cobsea region could use the example set by Thailand and the Philippines, which is also actively implementing the Green Fins programme, in managing their diving tourism in sustainable ways. However, implementing Green Fins needs money. Unep and the Siam Cement Group have so far kept the ball rolling. Niphon is hoping that there are "green" corporations out there who will pitch in to help promote Green Fins's message, and to celebrate the Year of the Reef next year.

Bangkok Post