IN THE SPOTLIGHT: THE REEF WORLD FOUNDATION
Education and raising awareness is key.
How can communities and individuals start to find solutions to a problem
if they’re not aware of the problem in the first place?
– Melissa Hobson-
DG: Thanks for joining us today. Can you share with us the mission and vision of your organisation as well as the challenges the team is tackling?
CHLOE: Mission statement: “To inspire and empower people to act in conserving and sustainably developing coastal resources, particularly coral reefs and related ecosystems.”
Vision: Reef-World’s vision for Green Fins is to make sustainable diving and snorkelling the social norm by inspiring and empowering the community of divers, snorkelers and related businesses, in order to achieve conservation impact on the ground and preserve coral reefs around the world.
MELISSA: As a charity, we are recognised as the leading voice on practical sustainability solutions for the scuba diving and snorkelling industry; driving sustainable behaviours for environmental protection. Our work through our flagship initiative – Green Fins – has been proven to reduce threats to, and protect, one of the world’s most valuable ecosystems: coral reefs.
Coral reefs are vital to a healthy ocean: they provide a habitat for marine life, protect the coastline from storms and provide us with natural resources such as food and medicine. They are also very fragile, which is why we should always adopt a precautionary approach when considering their protection. By the 2030s, more than 90% of the world’s reefs will be threatened by local human activities, warming and acidification as well as the effects of climate change. Projected increases in tourist numbers visiting reefs will further threaten them through preventable, irresponsible businesses practices and tourist behaviours. Our challenge is to improve sustainability across the tourism industry which will protect coral reefs and other delicate marine environments for the benefit of local communities, visitors and future generations.
DG: What is the team doing to solve the challenges?
CHLOE: Reef-World’s very ethos – and the purpose of our Green Fins initiative – is to educate, inspire and empower people to reduce the pressures on coral reefs. We do this by driving environmentally friendly practices across the global marine tourism industry through our flagship initiative – Green Fins – which is implemented in partnership with the UN Environment Programme.
Through Green Fins, around 600 marine tourism businesses have committed, complied with and shown demonstrable improvement in 15 key areas related to negative environmental impact. The initiative is currently active in 11 countries, which are home to some of the world’s most biologically important coral reef sites: Antigua and Barbuda, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives, Palau, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
At its core, the Green Fins approach provides a practical, accessible and measurable way to reduce the negative environmental impacts associated with marine tourism. Based on sound science and over 20 years’ experience in the field, Green Fins delivers practical solutions for marine conservation around the world. Its Code of Conduct, free resources and robust assessment system encourages and empowers the diving industry to reduce the local pressures tourism puts on coral reefs, which helps make corals healthier and more resilient to other stresses.
We are dedicated to empowering governments, businesses, communities and individuals around the world to protect their precious underwater ecosystems. I believe that education is the most powerful tool available to us when battling environmental degradation. By educating people to use sustainable practices, we can nurture responsible on-reef tourism, listen and learn from local communities and protect marine ecosystems for future generations.
DG: I’m really impressed and inspired by what the team is doing globally! What can us as scuba divers and individuals do to contribute?
MELISSA: The global issue of climate change is something many people feel powerless against. While we can play our part in adopting more environmentally friendly behaviours, we – as individuals – cannot halt threats such as ocean acidification, rising sea temperatures and global overfishing. However, coral is surprisingly resilient and, therefore, any action we take can have a positive impact. When coral does not have to face direct local threats – for example, caused by marine tourism – it becomes better able to fight wider global issues, such as the effects of climate change. For this reason, making environmentally friendly choices – particularly when diving, snorkelling or visiting the ocean on holiday – is hugely important.
As well as reducing their carbon emissions by making more responsible travel and food choices, people can minimise their negative impact on coral reefs by always following environmental best practice. This includes: never touching or chasing marine life; reducing your use of single-use plastics; not littering; recycling wherever possible and disposing of your waste responsibly; not feeding fish, wearing reef-safe sunscreen; refusing to support shark finning or the trade or corals or marine life (for example by buying shell souvenirs) and reporting any environmental violations to the relevant authorities. By booking with a certified Green Fins member, tourists are choosing a dive or snorkel operator that is actively working to protect our oceans by minimising their negative impact on coral reefs.
DG: What are some programs or courses you would recommend dive operators or scuba divers can participate to expand their knowledge in marine conservation?
MELISSA: Yes – there are lots of courses you can take to learn more about marine conservation. For example, PADI offers a Project AWARE and Dive Against Debris® Specialties among other things. There are other courses which are important too. For example, Peak Performance Buoyancy teaches you better buoyancy which helps minimise the chances of accidentally damaging the reef.
In fact, we have our own course too. The Green Fins Dive Guide e-Course is the only course which teaches dive professionals how to prevent diving-related damage to coral reefs by following the highest environmental standards, as set out by the Green Fins initiative. It helps dive professionals to become more environmentally aware, understand the main environmental threats posed by scuba diving and be able to minimise those threats.
We’re also about to launch the new Green Fins Diver e-course, which is designed for recreational divers. By taking the free course, you’ll learn about the simple actions you can take as a diver to protect coral reefs. To be the first to hear when the Green Fins Diver e-Course launches, you can sign up at: https://greenfins.net/notify-me/.
Sustainable tourism is so important. It just can’t be stated enough.
Unmanaged tourism and irresponsible diving can harm the reef and the marine life that lives there, reducing its tourism value in the long-term. Yet, scuba diving – when done responsibly – can be a great economic opportunity for destinations with healthy coral reefs and marine ecosystems. Divers and operators who follow best environmental practice minimise their negative impact on the reef and help preserve this precious ecosystem for future generations.
Sustainability offers a great opportunity to the tourism industry as it becomes more in demand. But it requires more than just handing out reusable drinking bottles. Businesses need to put the environment at the heart of their business model, make it the reason they exist and succeed. This will pay dividends to them, their staff, local communities and the environment.
Chloe’s thoughts on sustainable tourism especially for dive operators and local communities
DG: It’s commonly heard that education is key in creating a sustainable tourism industry and marine conservation. There has been an increase in media coverage on these global issues; however, we are also seeing a slow progression from the communities to put knowledge into action. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon? How can we tackle this problem?
MELISSA: Yes, education and raising awareness is key. How can communities and individuals start to find solutions to a problem if they’re not aware of the problem in the first place?
When it comes to the speed of progress, I think it’s important to put the scale of the issue into context. Creating sustainability across the tourism industry and protecting our oceans is a huge job and it’s not something that can be fixed overnight – much as I wish it could be.
It may feel like the steps we’re taking are slower than we might like but think about how much we’ve achieved in just a few years. When Blue Planet II first aired in 2017, we saw a huge wave of media support and heightened public awareness of the threats our oceans face. Since then, the UK has banned plastic micro-beads (2018) as well as plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds (2020): huge achievements which likely would not have been possible without strong public support.
Through Green Fins, we’re working with individual dive centres and staff to teach them about sustainability and how they can better protect the environment. Since the programme launched, around 600 dive shops in 11 countries have taken steps to reduce their negative environmental impact and membership requests are coming in all the time from all around the world. So much so that we’re looking at digital innovations to help us scale up the conservation impact of the programme by reaching more people, wherever they are in the world.
How can we tackle the problem? Keep at it! Educate yourself about marine conservation, spread the word among your friends and family and drive change by making sustainable choices.
DG: As a non-profit organization, how important are the monetary contributions from the public for your team and what will it be used for?
CHLOE: While there are lots of other ways people can support our work (for example, by educating themselves about sustainable practices, sharing our materials with friends and always booking with a Green Fins operator), donations are crucial in helping us continue our vital conservation work.
We believe everyone – no matter their background or income – should be able to help protect coral reefs. This is why we do not charge for the Green Fins programme or materials (all our posters are free for download on our website). However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t costs involved in running the programme: whether it be travel costs to reach a remote location and teach the community how to prevent damage to their coral reefs or the core costs involved in designing, developing and printing our posters to help raise awareness.
100% of donations go towards our work to engage and work with local communities, governments, NGOs and dive operators face-to-face (or virtually in the current climate!). Reef-World is a very lean organisation and we keep overheads as low as possible to ensure donations go as far as possible. For anyone who would like to donate, we’re so grateful: https://reef-world.org/donate
DG: What are some of the current projects your team is working on?
MELISSA: Although much of our fieldwork is currently on pause due to the pandemic, it’s a very busy time for us at the moment. We’ve just done a major refresh to the Green Fins website and are in the process of creating several new guidelines to help our members improve their sustainability (watch this space!). Development of the Green Fins Diver e-course, which I mentioned before, is also in full swing. And that’s just to name a couple!
DG: Yes! We love the new look of your website and we are thrilled to check out Green Fins Diver e-course too!
What are the other exciting projects you have in the pipeline?
CHLOE: Yes – we have a big and exciting project in the pipeline. We were recently thrilled to announce our Green Fins Global Hub proposal has been selected for project design under IDB Lab’s Beyond Tourism Challenge. This funding enables us to begin full development of the much-anticipated Green Fins Global Hub as well as supporting grassroots Green Fins implementation in the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica.
The Green Fins Global Hub is an online platform which will mean we can offer digital membership to any business around the world. The Hub will house an online support system to raise operator awareness of the potential threats their business practices pose to the environment and offer practical, proven solutions to address these. In this way, the digital global solution will encourage compliance with internationally recognised environmental standards, safeguard biodiversity and stimulate green tourism; ultimately, resulting in better protection of fragile coral reefs globally. In return, businesses can promote their successes.
The Green Fins Global Hub has been generating excitement among dive centres around the world for some time so we’re delighted that IDB Lab has recognised the huge conservation impact it will have and selected it for project design. By the end of the two-year project, we expect to have fully autonomous Green Fins assessor teams in both Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic as well as a global digital platform with the potential to reach 30,000 marine tourism operators across 100 countries and up-skill around 48,000 staff. Empowering the industry to collaborate for improved sustainability is essential in influencing the consumer choices of the 171 million travellers visiting reef hotspots annually and will have a significant conservation impact. We can’t wait to get started!
DG: That’s another fantastic milestone in the making! Could you share with us one of the most fulfilling moments of your team’s work?
CHLOE: This is a tough question because there are so many to choose from. Reef-Word is like a cauldron of opportunities and rewards for so many people and I always feel so privileged to be a part of that ripple effect. For me, helping to train dive guides and Green Fins national teams is always a point of pride: it’s so wonderful to see how far they come from the start of their training to becoming a true ambassador for the Green Fins cause. As an example, in 2008 we worked closely with 20 dive centres in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand, to help them overcome some of their most pressing environmental challenges by providing practical solutions. As well as training them, we assessed all 20 dive shops to verify their status as a Green Fins member. When the two weeks were up, we stood waiting for our ferry as the dive boats headed out for the day. Each of the companies we’d worked with was now proudly displaying the Green Fins flag on their boat and the horizon was awash with the Green Fins logo. Seeing how proud all these dive centres were in their environmental achievements was truly humbling for me and is one of the reasons I’m always so proud to see the Green Fins logo or materials on display when we visit our members.
DG: Before we end the interview, what do you think the future of marine conservation would look like?
CHLOE: We hope for a day when sustainability is core to diving and marine tourism – not a bonus or an add on – and we don’t need to talk about “green” practices because all practices are green! When local communities are not having to pay the price of the payoff between benefiting from the income derived from tourism and the negative impacts it can have. We believe sustainable tourism, together with global legislation to protect our ocean and technological innovations, can turn the tide and we hope for a future where our reefs are healthy and thriving for generations to come.