Making the most of the Blue Planet generation

Global threats such as ocean acidification, sea surface temperature increases and sea level rise have combined with more localised impacts including overfishing and pollution to make coral reefs one of the most threatened habitats on the planet

Global threats such as ocean acidification, sea surface temperature increases and sea level rise have combined with more localised impacts including overfishing and pollution to make coral reefs one of the most threatened habitats on the planet

Coral reefs hold a certain fascination for divers. The warm clear waters and easy access make them the most popular destination for recreational diving, whilst the rainbow of colours and sheer volume of animals that make reefs their home have driven many an underwater photography enthusiast to obsession.

Even amongst scientists, renowned for their ability to find interest in the most unlikely of sources, coral reefs offer such a wealth of research potential covering a broad range of disciplines that they remain the focus of a host of academics the world over. However, recent years have seen a new type of diver emerge; one who wants more than just a chance to see a coral reef with their own eyes, and who feels empowered to make a difference in the growing struggle to protect these ecosystems for the future.

This group is formed from a new generation of teenagers and young adults, brought up on a diet of wildlife documentaries, who have developed a keen desire to experience the wonders on offer in the world’s oceans. With developments in accessibility and budget travel opening up the tropics, once considered the realm of the wealthy, a large proportion of this group are choosing coral reefs to focus their attentions and considerable efforts on.

Marine conservation

Fortunately, these developments have coincided with a call for greatly increased marine conservation efforts throughout the tropics, with some experts suggesting over one third of the oceans need protecting if we are to halt the steady decline towards extinctions and ecosystem loss. Global threats such as ocean acidification, sea surface temperature increases and sea level rise have combined with more localised impacts including overfishing and pollution to make coral reefs one of the most threatened habitats on the planet.

Widespread management is required, but success relies on large and detailed data sets being collected to highlight the major impacts at a particular site, as well as to monitor the success of management intervention.

The extent of areas requiring attention is now simply too much for the small pool of expert consultants and academics to cover. This demand for data has, however, provided the perfect opportunity for these young enthusiasts to contribute meaningfully towards improved conservation management.

But manpower is not the only consideration. A comprehensive coral reef monitoring programme is likely to set you back tens of thousands of dollars per year for even a small geographical area.

Volunteering

Traditionally, this has relied on significant funding from governments and NGOs, but their resources can only be expected to stretch so far, especially bearing in mind the recent global economic downturn.

The emergence of technology as a tool in marine monitoring has added to the potential impact of volunteering

The involvement of passionate young amateur conservationists through marine environmental volunteering also offers a solution to this problem by providing a sustainable funding stream to add to their considerable manpower.

When the added by-products of this volunteering model are considered, including increased environmental awareness, income to local communities outside the typical tourist route, and the development of the next generation of marine scientists and conservationists, the true value of this market can be truly appreciated. In short, it gives us the opportunity to achieve what the scientific community could never manage alone, and will have an important part to play in the coming battle to conserve the Earth’s natural wonders.

Although the benefits brought by volunteering in terms of manpower and finances are unquestioned, their efforts have always been overshadowed by a widespread belief that data quality would undoubtedly suffer if the emphasis switches from highly experienced professionals to relatively inexperienced amateurs.

In some cases I would be forced to agree, but in my experience it is simply a question of research design. In the same way that a scientist will design an experiment based, in no small part, on the equipment available to them, volunteer organisations must tailor their efforts so they work to the strengths of the expertise they have at their disposal.

image001In this sense, the most important aspect of volunteer efforts is not the experience level of participants, but more the vision of those responsible for the design and implementation of data collection. In this way, a monitoring strategy developed by a core of experienced scientists, but utilising the manpower and enthusiasm of volunteers in a sensible way, can provide information on coral reefs which are extremely useful to conservation managers and researchers alike.

Use of technology

The emergence of technology as a tool in marine monitoring has added to the potential impact of volunteering, by addressing some of the key concerns regarding the accuracy of data collected by individuals with only minimal training and experience.

The use of photography and videography in reef monitoring allows techniques to be more standardised, lets data be checked more thoroughly by those scientists responsible for volunteer supervision, and provides a permanent record of the reef that can be re-visited at a later date. Even more recent advances include the use of stereo-video technology to assess reef fisheries, providing data on biomass which was previously questionable at best, and utterly impossible using volunteer efforts alone.

In short, the 21st century, although young, has already seen a change in the way people perceive the marine world and coral reefs in particular. Reefs are more accessible, meaning a greater number of people are able to enjoy them through recreation. But more importantly, they are providing a target for the passion of a generation with environmental awareness and protection one of their primary concerns.

If only a small percentage of those volunteering as teenagers and young adults choose conservation as a career, the future looks promising. Not many of these individuals return from volunteering unchanged though, with new perceptions of the world outside their comfort zone and the struggles facing large sections of the world’s population, and this can only be good news for one of the planet’s most threatened ecosystems.

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