Despite occupying less than 0.1% of the earth’s surface, coral is main reason why travelers choose to visit tropical destinations. According to a recent research, it is revealed that the world’s coral reefs contribute to 70 million trips per annum, showing that coral reefs are a powerful driving force for tourism.
The study, published by Spadling et al, also revealed that coral reefs represent an astonishing $36 billion a year in economic value to the world. Of that $36 billion, $19 billion represents actual “on-reef” tourism like diving, snorkeling, glass-bottom boating and wildlife watching. The other $16 billion comes from spillover effects of coral reefs; including world class seafood, beautiful views of white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters, charter fishing, bareboat sailing, cruise shipping, helicopter and seaplane rides, water sports, whale watching, etc.
Unfortunately, there is also a grim side to increased tourism activities. Breakage of coral colonies and tissue damage from direct contact such as walking, touching, kicking, standing, or gear contact is a major issue. Boat anchors can cause breakage or overturning of coral colonies and tissue damage. Moreover, there may also be changes in marine life behavior from feeding or harassment by humans.
Tour operators, hotel owners and government have a responsibility over the protection of coral reefs. Proper education to visiting tourists and locals are essential for proper management. One emerging resolution that is proving to be effective is the modeling of the economic contributions of coral reefs. An example of this working is in Bonaire, a small Caribbean island. In Bonaire, it was demonstrated that coral reefs generate approximately $23 million from its related activities, and in contrast it would take a mere $1 million to establish strict protection. This was an easy sell to the local policy makers, who have established strict laws governing coral reef protection in Bonaire (Talbot & Wilkinson, 2001).
Human impacts are not the only cause of reef devastation. In 1998, Seychelles underwent a major El. Nino event which had caused the destruction of over 90% of the live coral cover. When major disasters such as this occur, it gives rise to unwanted algal growth. The photographs depicted below were taken during my field research. They demonstrate the contrast between a coral dominated system and an algal dominated system.
Herbivorous fish species such as parrotfish, surgeonfish and rabbitfish help promote coral recovery by grazing on the unwanted algae. However, these fish species are also a major delicacy in the Seychelles, forming over 60% of the total artisanal catch. Moreover, fishing of these fish species is not regulated in the country, making them susceptible to over-fishing.
Following the 1998 bleaching event, the coral in Seychelles had shown some recovery, but suffered another El. Nino event in 2016, taking things back to square one. Natural disasters are becoming ever more frequent with climate change on the rise. Tropical destinations such as Seychelles will have to act quickly to safeguard their coral reefs.
Science needs to be incorporated more efficiently into governmental policy, as has been done in Bonaire.