Coral reefs are hurting, but they're not entirely washed up and defeated. They have a movement behind them that seems stronger than any save-the-oceans push in recent memory, and more travelers are aware of reefs because more are visiting them.
More than half of the world’s coral reefs have died in the last 30 years as ocean temperatures and pollution levels have risen around the globe. But corals can come back from the dead, a possibility that has caused many scientists, governments, and travel companies to kick into high gear and reverse the trend of reefs becoming watery graves.
The travel industry’s first hurdle in saving coral reefs worldwide is to show travelers that the reefs haven’t been completely destroyed, a narrative some argue mainstream media has helped to perpetuate. While the industry stages an awareness campaign for the reefs, many brands in recent years have also reignited the movement to ban single-use plastics, which harm coral.
Estimates vary but The Nature Conservancy, an Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit organization, claims that coral reef tourism is worth $36 billion globally each year. That number doesn’t include the billions of dollars reefs also generate for other industries, like fishing and pharmaceuticals.
More than 71 million people visit a coral reef each year, including 3 million and counting who visit the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.
Some countries and states realize they can’t afford to lose coral reef revenues. The Australian government announced earlier this year that it will invest a record $500 million in the Great Barrier Reef to protect the 64,000 jobs that rely on the reef and improve water quality and fund more reef restoration projects. Hawaii’s governor signed a bill into law earlier this month that will ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two ingredients that harm coral and other marine life, starting in 2021. Hawaii is the first U.S. state to pass such a bill.
Belize’s government voted to put a moratorium on all new oil exploration in its waters in December 2017 and last month, a decision the Belize Tourism Board in part attributes to why the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) removed the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System from its List of World Heritage in Danger, a designation the reef had since 2009.
The most recent global coral bleaching event in 2015 and 2016 opened more eyes to the extent of the problem and prompted more governments and companies to take action. Some 29 percent of shallow water corals on the Great Barrier Reef alone died from the bleaching when ocean temperatures hit 32 degrees Celsius, the point when coral starts to bleach. The 2016 bleaching was the deadliest on record and recent tropical storms in Australia also caused coral damage.
“When the first documentaries came out in 2016, we had some major cancellations particularly from the U.S., said Emilio Fortini, former general manager of Lizard Island, a luxury resort on the Great Barrier Reef, who recently left the property. “And then ever since last year, we have a number of people coming through saying they want to come before it all disappears.”
Fortini said some parts of the reef weren’t affected by the 2016 bleaching. “It’s not always as bad as it’s portrayed in the media,” he said. “The reef isn’t destitute. We haven’t had really hot waters since the bleaching in 2016 so a lot of coral is coming back stronger.”
Daydream Island, another resort on the Great Barrier Reef, said travelers who visit have a sense of urgency. “A lot of tourists tell us that they came now because they think the reef will be dead in five years,” said Jayson Heron, the resort’s director of sales and marketing.
Marine biologist Johnny Gaskell, who works at the resort, said he’s currently pleading a case to try to move coral from healthy areas to propagate it into colonies elsewhere around Daydream Island.
Purging Plastics From Reefs
Resorts like Lizard and Daydream have the difficult task of growing the number of people who visit the Great Barrier Reef while reducing the number of single-use plastics they use and leave behind, which often get stuck floating in the ocean or end up on beaches that tourists frequent.
Lizard stopped using plastic straws last year. “We also just finalized a deal to get rid of all plastic water bottles,” said Fortini. “Last year we started introducing stainless steel bottles for all the guests. And two weeks ago, we stopped using plastic bottles completely. That took a lot of time because we have to be careful of the commercial aspect as well.”
Daydream said it also plans to ban plastic straws.
Andy Ridley, founder of Earth Hour and CEO of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, a platform that launched in November 2017 to track and encourage people around the world to reduce waste and energy use to help save reefs, said the current conversation about banning single-use plastics is different than past debates.
“This is the first time the mainstream has engaged in an environmental issue in more than a decade since Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth,'” said Ridley. “Think about where we’ve come from: 10 to 15 years ago you’d be buying CDs, now we have Spotify. Spotify wasn’t designed to help the environment, but how we consume music now is actually helpful for the environment.”
Ridley said a whopping 91 percent of plastic used worldwide each year is for single-use. “We’re seeing more hotels replace the little plastic shampoo bottles with soap dispensers,” he said. “Even some five-star hotels are now putting in the soap dispensers. “They’re no longer paying for the cost to make those little bottles.”
Cost of Saving Coral Reefs
Changing global consumer behavior and removing all plastics from supply chains is far from the biggest challenge all reef stakeholders have ahead of them.
Getting rid of plastics would be a splash against the wave of fossil fuels given off by airlines, boats, and other vehicles that travelers take to visit the reefs and millions of others use each day.
“The challenge that Australia has politically and economically is that we have a small population,” said Fortini. “We have so many natural resources but it’s a very expensive exercise and I don’t think a government is willing to commit to make a difference in that respect. But Australia is probably still in a better position than other countries in protecting the reefs.”
The Great Barrier Reef is likely the world’s healthiest reef system because of Australia’s history of protecting the reef, despite the fossil fuels the country still depends on. “Right now we’re thinking about what engines will go on the next generations of boats that will go out to the reef,” said Ridley. “Change won’t come because of any campaign. It will be a practical way like the widespread adoption of electric cars and solar energy.”
Some 50 percent of visitors to Belize dive at its reef, and that led the Belize Tourism Board to launch a project in March to raise money to preserve the Belize and Great Barrier Reef. The project, which ran through the end of March, let travelers bid on reef experiences. The tourism board worked with the World Wildlife Fund to determine how to use the money raised, said Karen Bevans, director of tourism for the Belize Tourism Board.
Aqua-Aston Hospitality, a hotel group with 40 properties in Hawaii, California, and Florida is already in front of Hawaii’s upcoming ban on certain sunscreens. The company’s goal is to have reef-safe sunscreen dispensers implemented in all 40 properties by the end of 2018. Only eight properties currently have the dispensers due to costs and management agreements
“Now that we’re going through budgeting process again we can make sure it’s a mandate for the company,” said Theresa van Greunen, a spokesperson for the company who spearheaded the program to implement the dispensers. “There are definitely costs that are not recouped.”
Van Greunen said guests get a small sample of reef-safe sunscreen when they check in, and there is also printed information in each guest room about the sunscreen and how to have a sustainable stay.
“Many people weren’t aware that sunscreen could be a form of pollution,” said van Greunen. “You can actually see the sheen of the sunscreen oil washing off in some parts of the state. Part of the reason we wanted to offer the reef safe sunscreen is that it’s not really readily available.”
Can We Turn This Around?
About 25 percent of the world’s marine life either come from or depend on coral reefs, not to mention the billions of dollars behind tourists’ desires to see them.
Some reef advocates like Ridley and Fortini are optimistic because there’s little evidence that the act of a tourist visiting a reef or diving near one is harmful to its ecosystem. But of course, the plastic and energy footprints they make to do that are still concerning.
“Having people come and talk to their friends about it is the best chance we have,” said Ridley. “If no one sees it, no one will know, and no one will care. How you do tourism is that you do it at length.”
While the save the reef and ban plastics movement has gone global to certain extents, parts of the world, such as Asia, haven’t caught up to the western world’s understanding of the problem.
“We need to watch the growth in visitor numbers out of Asia who don’t necessarily understand the importance of being careful,” said Fortini.
It’s also difficult to predict when the next coral bleaching event will occur, but some project bleaching could occur every few years by 2030. That should set off alarm bells for a travel industry that prides itself on increasingly offering unique experiences like those that can only be had on coral reefs.
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Photo credit: Coral reefs have been receiving almost unprecedented media attention in the past year. In this Friday Nov. 25, 2016, photo Australian senator Pauline Hanson listens to marine scientist Alison Jones, left, as she displays a piece of coral on the Great Barrier Reef off Great Keppel Island, Queensland, Australia. Dan Peled / Associated Press