The Unintended Impacts of Tourism on Coral Reefs
Coral reefs are some of the world’s most biodiverse habitats, typically found in tropical areas within 30 degrees of the equator. Thousands of people come from all over the world to see their color and beauty. Reef networks provide thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue for diving tours, fishing trips, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses. The tourism industry has recently collapsed as a result of the safety measures placed in place to protect communities from the COVID-19 outbreak. This seemed like an ideal opportunity to consider the effect of tourism on coral reefs.
While sustainable ecotourism can help provide alternative lifestyles for coastal communities, over-exploitation of the industry can endanger the reefs that have already been destroyed. Increased coastal tourism has put more strain on coral reef resources, either directly on the reefs or indirectly through increased coastal construction, sewage discharge, and vessel traffic.
Tourists must make educated decisions and act responsibly, as their activities can have a negative effect on the conservation of these fragile ecosystems. Many people are also unaware of the consequences of their decisions. What are the threats to coral reefs, and how can coral reef etiquette assist you in being a more knowledgeable tourist?
How Tourism Threatens Corals
Corals are stressed when visitors accidentally touch, pollute, or break off sections of the reef. The coral organisms attempt to repel the invaders, but this also results in coral bleaching, which occurs when corals expel the brightly colored algae that live inside them and become fully white. Corals that have been bleached die and will no longer contribute to the reef community’s biodiversity. Seagrass and mangroves—shallow-water plant species important to the survival of the marine ecosystem—are often endangered by coral stress because the destruction of one ocean system affects all others.
Sedimentation is another major issue that coral reefs face. When dirt and debris end up in the water, they pollute aquatic habitats and prevent algae from getting the sunlight they need to photosynthesize. The immobile coral reefs bleach and die when light is blocked.
Dredging, logging, irrigation, and tourism-driven coastal growth are all causes of sedimentation in Costa Rica, for example. In the Cauhita region of Costa Rica, research by biologist Jorge Cortés records a decade of detrimental impacts from tourism on coral reefs. If better management principles are not implemented, sedimentation will continue to devastate Pacific reefs.
In the next five to ten years, scientists expect that half of all coral reefs in Latin America will be degraded. According to studies, 30% of coral reefs around the world are now severely affected. If we don’t take steps to mitigate the negative human impacts of climate change on coral reef ecosystems, 70% of all reefs are projected to vanish by 2030.
Let’s break these threats down further.
Vessels grounding and colliding with shallow coral reefs may cause significant habitat damage. In nearshore environments, propeller scarring, anchoring, and other physical impacts are becoming increasingly problematic. In Florida alone, 136 manatees died last year after being hit by speeding watercraft. Anchors can dislodge, crush, and fragment the benthic ecosystem, displacing resident fish and obliterating critically significant topographic complexity and habitat structure that takes hundreds of years to recover.
What you can do:
- Use mooring buoys to secure your vessel.
- Inquire about diving and snorkeling operations that practice reef-safe boating.
- If you must use an anchor, do so in areas with a sandy bottom to avoid harming the marine life, corals, or other marine ecosystems in the region.
Scuba Diving Swimming And Snorkelling
Corals may be harmed by uninformed and careless divers, snorkelers, and swimmers touching and standing on them. The coral polyps can be suffocated by kicking up sand. Corals, despite their rock-like nature, are extremely vulnerable to injury and disease. Eating, chasing, and touching marine life can change their behavior, the frequency with which they visit the area, and even their home range.
What you can do:
- Avoid standing on, touching, or kicking coral.
- Practice good buoyancy and keep a safe distance from the action. When diving or snorkeling, make sure you’re not dragging any equipment, such as depth gauges or cameras.
- Avoid diving activities that don’t have a crew member on board.
Invasive species can spread through tourism and recreational activities such as ballast water transportation, cruise ship hull fouling, and recreational boat fouling (e.g., from hulls, outboard motors, live wells, water lines, fishing gear and debris).
Reducing the degree of use at such sites (e.g., by limiting access) and reducing the impacts of use by changes in human behavior are the two primary approaches to controlling recreational activities in coral reef areas (e.g., educating reef users to discourage destructive actions, and imposing regulations prohibiting certain destructive actions).
Coral reefs and the coastal structures that link them provide protection from erosion and storm damage. Coastal growth poses a major threat to marine resources because mangrove forests defend against wave action and serve as a storm surge buffer. Beachfront construction of houses, hotels, restaurants, highways, sea walls, and nourishment are all examples of coastal development.
Coastal construction is putting a lot of pressure on turtles. Turtles mate and lay their eggs on the same beaches where they were born. Sea walls can prevent female nesting turtles from laying eggs and cause unnatural beach erosion. Furthermore, beachfront lighting from resorts, highways, and buildings can harm turtle hatchlings. The juvenile turtles are led to the ocean by light as they emerge from their nests. Artificial lighting can cause hatchling turtles to become disoriented, leading them away from the sea and toward paths, obstacles, and predators.
Coastal development and construction projects can alter natural drainage patterns, resulting in runoff into nearby reefs, especially where mangroves and plant anchorage have been removed. When soil, dirt, and debris are deposited in the ocean, particularly after heavy rains, sedimentation occurs. Sediment pollutes marine environments by obstructing light and suffocating corals and seagrass. To photosynthesize, seagrass beds require clear shallow water. Corals also rely on zooxanthellae for photosynthesis, which means that light deprivation can cause them to starve, bleach, and die.
Efficient planning and land use policies can help to reduce coastal growth and sedimentation. Visit areas with strict planning and development laws in place to protect the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems wherever possible. Mangrove conservation, minimum shoreline construction distances, and wastewater collection can all help to reduce local stress on coral reefs and improve tourism’s long-term viability.
The Big Picture
Ocean protection needs education and knowledge. Being mindful of your environment can have a huge impact on the ecosystem’s health. When planning a holiday, prioritize sustainability and do research on the hotels you will stay in and the events you will participate in. Your decisions have the potential to have a significant effect on how the tourism industry grows in the future.