MPAs: Our Best Chance to Save Coral Reefs

Coral reefs have thrived for 250 million years, but today they are on the brink of collapse. They are overfished by commercial conglomerates, overheated by rising ocean temperatures and overlooked by ambitious developers and marine recreation operators.

Making necessary changes to protect an entire ecosystem may sound like a daunting effort, but given that roughly one in 13 people on the planet depend on coral reefs for food, coastal protection and income, we can’t afford not to act.

According to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network’s 2008 Status of Coral Reefs of the World, our best chance to save coral reefs is to “establish more marine protected areas (MPAs) that are linked into networks and managed by all stakeholders, especially user communities.” These areas preserve our valuable marine environments from threats such as pollution, coastal development, sedimentation and overfishing.

Yet the creation of MPAs isn’t enough. They must be well managed by area stakeholders, including local community members, government leaders, private industry and — as is often the case in coral reef destinations — the tourism industry. Managed MPAs give reefs a fighting chance against environmental threats while providing a means for local residents to create economically vibrant and stable communities.

The Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization with active project sites in Hawaii, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, unites and empowers communities to save coral reefs. We bring together communities to build well managed MPAs that reduce local reef threats, promote responsible tourism and support financially sustainable businesses.

By providing tools and education to those who directly depend on reefs for survival, CORAL and its partners around the world are building strong MPAs that support healthy coral reefs and healthy local communities. As the following case studies demonstrate, the principle is the same regardless of the size of the community.

Protecting Fiji’s Reefs

Josaia “Joe” Ramanatobue lives in the fishing village of Navatu in Fiji’s remote Kubulau District. Made up of 10 villages, Kubulau is a verdant region where lush hills give way to abundant mangroves and spectacular coral reefs. In the 1980s and 1990s, a domestic increase in commercial fishing threatened the reefs. In 1997, the chiefs of Kubulau district responded by placing a total ban on fishing; they established the Namena Marine Reserve and other no-take zones.

An early proponent of the marine reserve, Ramanatobue first found it difficult to convince those who had fished traditional fishing grounds for generations that a targeted fishing ban would help rather than hurt their livelihoods. “In the beginning people didn’t understand what we were trying to do,” Ramanatobue said. “But now they are getting the picture. By protecting our reefs, we keep our reefs. Today, the reef is our main source of income. We fish for our meals, but we also sell our catch at market. We use the reef every day to make a living.”

Part of that living comes from a user fee system that CORAL set up in partnership with marine tourism operators and the marine park managers — a committee representing all 10 Kubulau villages. Tourists visiting the spectacular and thriving reefs off the southern coast of Vanua Levu pay a small fee of FJ$25 per year (around US$12). The fees go back to Kubulau’s villages to support ongoing management of the MPA, community improvements and scholarships for local students.

By establishing and carefully managing the Namena Marine Reserve, the residents of Kubulau are creating a sustainable source of food and income while investing in their children’s future. This reserve underscores the power of small, intensely local communities to manage reef resources. Our second case study presented a very different challenge.

Making Conservation a Priority in a Central America

Stretching from the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to the Bay Islands of Honduras, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is one of the largest coral reef systems in the world; it is second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Recognizing the value of this fragile ecosystem, the presidents of Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala and the prime minister of Belize signed the Tulum Declaration; they agreed to conserve and promote sustainable tourism along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.

In response to this commitment, the International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN) created the Mesoamerican Reef Alliance (MAR), a collaborative project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Foundation to improve economic and environmental sustainability along the reef.

CORAL was engaged as the lead agency for the tourism component of the ICRAN MAR project; the project’s goal was to develop voluntary standards for marine recreation to improve environmental performance of scuba diving, snorkeling and boat operations.

Standards have a long history of improving service quality and safety in a wide range of industries. By helping to create standards for their own industry, marine recreation businesses were given the opportunity to share ideas, express concerns and eventually reach a mutual agreement. In many cases throughout Mesoamerica, this was the first time that representatives from competitive operations discussed the preservation of the fragile resource on which all their businesses depend.

To create and implement the standards and to provide technical and financial support for local conservation efforts, CORAL and its partners identified three pilot sites at existing MPAs. We helped form a task force of representatives from tourism industry associations, local community groups, marine park managers, government agencies and non-governmental organizations. Given such varied interests, it was often challenging for the task force to find common ground; however, this multinational committee collaborated to write a voluntary code of conduct for marine recreation in Mesoamerica.

The partners conducted multiple training sessions throughout the region, briefing all stakeholders about coral reef ecology, specific threats to their reefs and local solutions for sustainable business practices. By inviting everyone with a stake in the reef to join the discussion, the ICRAN MAR project not only achieved adoption of the standards but also increased support for MPAs.

In May 2007, the task force unanimously published “Voluntary Standards for Marine Recreation in the Mesoamerican Reef System: Scuba Diving Services, Snorkeling Services, and Recreational Boat Operations.”

The minister of tourism for Belize has expressed interest in codifying the standards into regulations for all the MPAs in the country. In Honduras, the experience of working together to create a successful voluntary standard has encouraged marine recreation operators in the Bay Islands to engage with the Roatan Marine Park Association in future planning for the marine park. And in Cozumel, Ricardo Gomez Lozano, director of the Cozumel Reefs National Park, recently required all 1,200 tour guides who work in the marine park to become trained in the industry standards.

“This is the best moment for the marine park to give something back to the community,” Lozano said. “We need the corals for tourism and to produce our beautiful white sand beaches. They are dying, and if we don’t do anything, we’ll lose them forever.”

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2009