Before I decided to apply for the ZEP, I had learned a bit about Green Fins from my previous visit to The Philippines and from some online homework. But here I am, and in the next few months I will actually be working as volunteer Green Fins coordinator – together with my fellow ZEPs, Tash and Belinda. So last week we got a crash course on Green Fins, learning about its origins, its mission and on how the initiative works in the six different countries where it is currently implemented.
What seemed liked a complex structure, is now starting to make sense: the UN Environment Program initiated the Green Fins plan, charging Reef World (a UK charity) to implement it in targeted countries, with in-country support from national and regional governments, as well as local NGOs. This structure is in place to support the main actors, namely the dive centres. By adhering to a set of environmental standards dive centres themselves will ensure a sustainable dive industry, such that tourists and locals will both able to enjoy the benefits of healthy reef ecosystems. Here in the Philippines the Green Fins coordinators, tasked with assisting dive centres, are external to the government. However, the aim is to build capacity by training government officials to take up this role. This would bring stakeholders closer, facilitating communication between the people on the ground, and the people in power.
But for now, as volunteer coordinators in the Puerto Galera area, we will be working with existing Green Fins dive centres and communicating with the local government. Our task is to assess each dive centre’s environmental impact and to then assist them in (further) reducing it. One of the most attractive prospects (I cannot lie…) is that we get to go diving with different dive operators in the Sabang and White Beach area. Even though these won’t be “fun dives” in the traditional sense, any chance to get in the water sounds good to me! 🙂 I also have to admit that I got a little bit excited about the “secret agent”- like method that Green Fins uses for the environmental impact assessment. Ideally the dive staff and customers will be unaware that we (the Green Fins assessors) are watching and assessing their behaviour under water, such that we get an unbiased picture of the threat posed to the fragile ecosystem by unaware, inexperienced or uncaring divers. In addition, we’ll have to interview and observe staff, check out the dive shop, their infrastructure and their dive boat, assess the content of their briefings and information materials etc., to work out whether the operator adheres to the code of conduct.
Throughout our time in Puerto Galera we will also collect more specific data on diver contacts with the reef, which will contribute to a growing database on diver impact on coral reef health. It was previously shown that giving an environmental awareness briefing before a dive reduces diver contact with the fragile reef and that correcting “bad” diver behaviour in the first few minutes of a dive will reduce further incidents. It has been my own experience in various parts of the world, that divers wittingly or unwittingly destroy coral or harass wildlife due to poor technique or poor decision making. While I would cringe at the sight, I never really intervened, or even said anything. I guess I did not think it was my place to comment, or that these people simply would not be open to suggestions. Interestingly, most of the time the dive guide or instructor would stay mute as well, and worse, sometimes they would be guilty of the same destructive behaviour. Yet, as the research showed, just a few simple changes in the way dive leaders instruct their customers can make a world of difference. Training staff to be role models and to correct their students and customers is therefore one of the key components of the Green Fins approach.
Of course (and unfortunately), the world’s coral reefs are under threat from a variety of negative influences. Direct human impact is just part of a much bigger story. But every little bit matters, and the dive industry can play a significant part in changing perceptions as well as behaviours that can reduce these direct impacts, such that the coral stands a better chance to survive threats from climate change, habitat loss and so on.
I am hoping that our work in the next few months will encourage dive centres to really raise the bar, to accept environmental standards as normal practice, and to take positive action to secure a future with healthy reefs that protect us, feed us, and dazzle us with their unique beauty. By now you’ve probably guessed that I am pretty keen put my Green Fins on! 🙂