Protecting Our Waters Above and Below

Diving businesses depend heavily on the quality and sustainability of the diving environments they offer their clients: Ecology affects their economy. Therefore, divers and diving businesses all have a vested interest in preserving these environments. This article provides guidance on how diving businesses can develop and implement ecologically sound and sustainable management practices.

There are four key areas that require attention if a diving business is to operate in an ecologically sound and sustainable way.

1. Ecological awareness: What is at risk and why?
2. Activities: How can the diving business conduct its activities in an environmentally sustainable way?
3. Staff: How can staff be made more aware about the importance of the environment? How can they be better trained to monitor and improve the overall sustainability of their diving operations?
4. Your clients: How can customers and clients be made fellow protectors of the ecology by promulgating responsible diving practices?

An ecosystem is a physical environment and the variety of life it sustains.  Ecological awareness, in simple terms, is a genuine understanding of, and concern towards, the importance of preserving and prudently using these physical environments – including the natural resources they provide and life they support. With greater awareness comes greater appreciation: This can shape the behavior of people and influence it in a positive way. In the case of diving, there are several studies which show a direct relationship between ecological awareness and proper underwater behavior amongst divers (Medio, Ormond, & Pearson, 1997; Musa, Seng, Thirumoorthi, & Abessi, 2011). However, to raise awareness, for example among the clients of a diving business, one must first pinpoint the present, relevant issues; contextualize them; and identify what implications they have.

Generally speaking, it can be said that all ecosystems are under threat. Typically, those environments in which one tends to dive the most (e.g., a local dam or quarry), or those which are well-known to the public (e.g. coral reefs) receive the most attention. However, all aquatic ecosystems are affected – whether marine or freshwater: Marine environments include tropical coral reefs, seamounts, coralliferous habitats, intertidal rocky shores, and even artificial reefs such as wrecks; freshwater and brackish systems are made up of inland quarries and dams, lakes, caves, rivers and estuaries. These environments are all threatened by similar factors, but in varying degrees.

Ecosystems are vulnerable to a variety of threats: Their essential substrates of air, water and sediment may be modified or damaged in various ways, including:
  • Climate change and consequent changes in air and water temperature;
  • Ocean acidification because of increasing levels of carbon dioxide reducing the pH by saturating calcium carbonate buffering systems in the water;
  • Eutrophication by the addition of nitrogen compounds to the water, with hazardous algae blooms; exhaustion of dissolved oxygen by artificially enhanced biomass production;  poisoning of water and aquatic life forms; and reduced visibility in the water;
  • Pollution from industrial effluent and gas discharges; sewerage works; littering; release of toxic chemicals into the air, water or sediment; and esthetic destruction of the environment;
  • Hard and soft engineering interventions -- such as the construction of roads, groins and nourishment, leading to various effects ranging from the physical removal of habitats, to alterations of natural drainage patterns, sediment and water movement;
  • Extraction of resources – whether organic (such as harvesting or fishing), or inorganic (such as sediment mining), all of which can change the topography of a place and remove habitat; and
  • Diving – resulting in disturbance of sediment through trampling; pollution of water due to sunscreen oil slicks; and air pollution from boating, air-compressing, electricity-generation, driving or even flying-related carbon emissions.
Ultimately, in addition to any impact on the inorganic parts of the ecosystem, the organic and living elements are affected. These include plants, animals, and bacteria, of which the most familiar to divers might be coral reefs, seagrass meadows, kelp forests, large mammals, turtles, crustaceans, mollusks, hydroids, jellyfish, sponges and fish. Fishing and harvesting has direct impact, but indirect damage often results from anchoring, boat and propeller strikes;  touching, kicking, standing, or grabbing; stirring up sediment causing deposition; etc. Whether directly or indirectly, any of these actions can result in injury, disease, behavioral changes (for animals), migrations, changes in ecosystem richness and diversity, death, or even extinction of species.

The degradation or loss of water ecosystems can have devastating effects. Divers and diving businesses can beseverely impacted by the results, some of which follow hereafter.
  • Health hazards – pollution or toxins in the air and water;
  • Physical hazards – unstable substrates;
  • Esthetic impact – loss of natural beauty of the environment, making it less attractive to visitors;
  • Imposed preservation – including mandatory closure of dive sites due to safety and health reasons, or to allow ecosystem recovery;
  • Desolation and deprivation of the ecosystem –
    • Short term loss of aquatic recourses – water and food; loss of economic support due to a reduction in tourism and recreational activities; etc., and
    • Long term loss of resources and quality of life to future generations.
These are all things that can affect diving activities negatively, with socio-economic repercussions like the loss of business, tourism, and jobs. 

Various top-down measures can improve awareness and responsibility, and promote sustainability in diving activities and operations. Local governments, governmental agencies, certifying agencies, tourism organisations, research entities, small enterprises, NGOs and private citizens can all drive responsible business activities. Campaigns can take various forms, but the ultimate purpose is to support environmentally-sustainable and eco-friendly practices in diving businesses. Some initiatives are based on education and monitoring programmes. Others focus on recognition or certification for good practices, encouraging diving businesses to adhere to a set of criteria. The common principles for basic actions to enhance business responsibility follow.
  • Proper training and education: This starts with basic diving skill training, particularly buoyancy control. Some experimental work has shown that learning skills in buoyancy imparts a sense of independence from the substrate; this reduces the risk of contact for the diver and the environment. Formal, thorough training to internationally accepted standards by professional certifying agencies provide superior outcomes. Finally, the diving business should commit towards both receiving and providing environmental education as part of their training programs, and to create and adopt codes of conduct and best practice;
  • Reducing the carbon footprint: simple measures can be employed, such as using four stroke instead of two-stroke engines and switching to methane-, diesel-, electric-, or solar power rather than petroleum;
  • Active promotion of environmental awareness: establishing a culture of awareness, top-down, from staff to clients - this will be discussed later in detail;
  • Reducing pollution and litter: recycling if possible; providing an adequate number of litter bins; reducing or avoiding the use of heavy chemicals for cleaning and maintenance; regularly inspecting operating boats for oil or fuel leaks; and properly disposing of waste, such as toxic waste and engine oil;
  • Actively protecting dive sites: not using anchors; engaging in cleanup or litter removal initiatives; formal dive site monitoring and reporting; and of course by properly managing dive groups -- including both size and conduct;
  • Prohibiting the sale of endangered species as food or as souvenirs, e.g., reef fish, corals, mollusks, etc.;
  • Promoting sustainable businesses, by collaborating with local businesses, e.g., responsible aquaculture and the sale of sustainably harvested seafood resources; and
  • Partnering with local authorities and governance bodies, by means of the knowledgeable implementation and enforcement of rules and regulations; by creating and adopting codes of practice; and by means of peer-based self-governance for the best achievement possible of sustainability goals. Conservation goals should be understood as a shared responsibility by adopting effective means of reporting and acting on reports of illegal activities. Collaborations can extend to NGOs and institutions, some of which freely offer support, guidelines, and monitoring of the success of eco-friendly initiatives. Others, such as public schools, offer opportunities to educate future generations, and stimulate their interest in diving and related environmental matters.

Staff constitutes a critical link between the client, the environment, and the diving business; their role is fundamental. So, businesses need to train and inform their staff properly so that they are aware of their environmental responsibility, and are more capable of imparting this
awareness to their clients. The eco-friendly standards and practices which follow represent ways in which staff can minimise the destruction of the diving environment.
  • Dive training: Staff should have exemplary diving skills, especially buoyancy control, whether they are trained locally or employed after receiving training elsewhere. Both appropriate qualification and competence should be confirmed before engaging staff in duties that impact the environment;
  • Environmental education: Depending on the resources available to the dive business, staff may attend courses on marine or freshwater ecology and conservation; receive relevant local updates or refreshers if they already have basic knowledge; and receive free learning material from the dive centers, NGOs, institutions, etc.;
  • Active promotion of environmental awareness:  Whether itinerant (i.e., seasonal staff and outsiders) or resident staff, all should be well aware of the rules, regulations, codes of practice, penalties, fines and disciplinary consequences of illegal, irresponsible or negligent actions. The working environment should be fully understood -- from the dive shop to boarding stations, marinas and harbors. It also includes ensuring that the staff adopt and enforce whatever code of conduct is being applied at the dive business and dive sites;
  • Client-relations training: Staff should be competent to provide a thorough pre-dive briefing, and know how to interact with clients on the surface and underwater by providing guidance, timely intervention to avoid negative impact, and providing first aid;
  • Managing infractions and violations: systems should be in place for dealing with misconduct of staff as well as clients. Complaints or reports of egregious behaviour should we dealt with promptly and appropriately. This may include corrective training ; disciplinary action; dismissal; or even criminal prosecution;
  • Motivation & empowerment: inappropriate employment practices, such as employing illegal workers or underpaying professional staff is both demeaning and ultimately self-defeating; ultimately, it has negative repercussions on the business, clients and the environment. Keeping staff motivated and empowered is critical to a successful diving business. Following Labor or practices is only the minimum, however. Whilst many dive locations do have a high turnover of itinerant staff, it is worth investing through continuous education, training, updates, rewards, and active participation in conservation (for example litter removal campaigns or reef monitoring campaigns) and education (for example school campaigns); and
  • Role models: The person responsible for the dive business also needs to be a role model to the staff. In turn, staff can then be a role model for the clients. Staff should embrace the philosophy of the business. Small things can make a big difference, such as agreeing not to spearfish or to actively recycle waste.

Dive businesses and staff often underestimate the positive impact they can have on their clients. By following some basic steps they may foster long-lasting environmental awareness. This will not only have a positive effect on the environment, but will also improve the sustainability of the diving business, environmentally, socially and economically. Simple measures, such as eco-labels, can establish positive branding of the diving business and can be used as a powerful marketing tool. Diving businesses and staff have various responsibilities to create or increase awareness of ecological issues among clients. Some of these are explained below.
  • Transparency & visibility: Displaying all rules, regulations, codes of conduct, and the philosophy of the diving business clearly – for displaying codes of conduct in marine protected areas, and listing eco-certification protocols where these are being followed (for example Green Fins in South-East Asia);
  • Education & briefing: Whether the business trains divers or only leads dives, by effectively teaching, verifying, and praising critical dive skills – like buoyancy control – divers and dive sites are protected. Ongoing education should be offered through verbal communication of rules, codes of conduct, and key ecological aspects of relevant dive sites. This info is normally a part of the pre-dive briefing, which means that it takes on additional significance: Apart from being a requirement by dive training and certification agencies, this is also a critical preparatory phase for the dive from a conservation perspective. Accordingly, it should not be rushed nor unduly prolonged. Providing pre-dive briefings is a skill and an art-form – it should be well prepared, well-rehearsed and well presented;
  • Intervention & correction: Inexperience, inattentiveness, carelessness and recklessness each require different corrective actions. These may include suspending further diving activities until the necessary skills have been mastered; awareness has been assured; egregious actions been addressed; and willful misconduct been disciplined appropriately. Politely correcting divers underwater, in the presence of other divers, is often a powerful incentive for long-term changes in divers' ways;
  • Eco-friendly marketing: By overtly promoting the environmental-friendly, eco-sensitive ethos, the client who arrives is more likely to share the values of the diving business. Organizing activities at various nearby sites, with smaller dives groups, also reduces pressures on any given dive sites, and promotes other eco-friendly industries in the immediate area, such as sustainably fished seafood restaurants;
  • Personal involvement and ownership: by means of various initiatives, ranging from monitoring to membership, and from clean-ups to clubs, divers may be encouraged to join and participate in eco-friendly groups or recognized NGOs, Citizen Science, and knowledge exchange;
  • Role modelling: Dive businesses and staff should lead by example to encourage the same behavior in their clients. People are more likely to follow actions that are consistent with instructions; and
  • Comments & critique: Asking clients for feedback can be constructive for businesses and staff. Data collected from clients, for example through brief surveys, can provide details on staff behavior, satisfaction, complaints and requests that can lead to the improvement of the business.

Diving businesses have a unique opportunity for conservation and preservation of the environment. By following an EASY approach, the various key areas can be addressed effectively: (1) Ecological awareness; (2) Activities; (3) Staff responsibilities; and (4) Your clients – EASY. Everything starts with awareness, and awareness starts with education. There are many benefits to embracing eco-friendly philosophies, including securing the sustainability of the diving business itself: Without healthy and functioning ecosystems, dive sites cannot attract tourism, and cannot sustain the livelihoods of people who depend on the diving industry. Our ecology is everyone’s responsibility.

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