Eco Divers Training Programme Brings Hope and Relief in Haiti

Earlier this year, volunteers from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, joined a training programme to become part of a team of eco-divers that will be responsible for surveying, and perhaps one day helping save, Haiti’s endangered coral reefs.

Haiti has the second-longest coastline of all the Caribbean countries, yet it is the only one that has not established marine protected areas where fishing is restricted or off-limits, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. So Reef Check, a non-profit organization in California that monitors reef health around the globe, decided to survey the reefs and propose that the Haitian government create marine parks where fish can feed, grow and reproduce.

Months after the earthquake that devastated Port au Prince in January 2010, Gregor Hodgson, the director of Reef Check , flew to Haiti to inspect reefs, checking for quake damage. Instead, he found something more alarming: dead coral as far as the eye could see, and almost no fish.  He estimates that about 85 percent of the coral reef has died.

Haiti’s extensive coral reef system, an attraction to foreign scuba divers in the 1970s and ’80s, has largely died off — partly from sedimentation and climate change, but mostly from overfishing.

Fishermen of the coast of La Gonâve Haiti image
Fishermen of the coast of La Gonâve Haiti

In Haiti 54,000 fishermen rely on the ocean for their livelihood, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, which oversees fisheries management. Pierre Guy LaFontant, Haiti’s director general of fisheries, acknowledged that overfishing is a problem and said that officials were receptive to the idea of establishing protected waters.

Mr. Hodgson and many of the Reef Check’s divers in training are sympathetic to the fishermen’s plight and believe they could become Haiti Eco-Divers’ strongest supporters. “Once they see the fish coming back, see the fish growing, see a beautiful reef coming back, then they become the ones who protect the reef,” Mr. Hodgson says.

Reef Check began recruiting volunteer divers earlier this year. According to Mr. Hodgson, only one of 30 applicants selected for a pool test in April could swim half its length. The rest could not swim at all. But what the volunteers lack in experience, they make up for it in passion and curiosity.

For some students, learning to swim and dive has also proved to be therapeutic.

“It was like a relief,” Jessica Laloi one of the volunteer students said at the end of her third day of lessons with Reef Check, looking back at the ocean. “When I was down there, I just forgot about the earthquake. I forgot everything, my sadness, everything. It was like I was living a new life.”

Taking part in this training programme is a welcome distraction from the tumult of life since her home collapsed in the earthquake a year and a half ago.

“Diving and swimming is a way of showing you that you are in the environment,” Jessica said. “You are part of it. You don’t have to destroy it.”

Fishermen in Haiti are desperately trying to survive so enforcing a no take zone in the Haitian waters seems an impossible task. “For fishermen, there are no alternatives. Poverty is the law.” says Mr. LaFontant. But Reef Check is hopefull that fishermen will see the benefits of establishing protected areas and save not only Haiti’s endangered coral reefs but their livelihood.

Read the full article published in the New York Times on September, 1st 2011 – Haitian Divers Hope to Aid Ailing Coral Reef, and Themselves – NYTimes.com.

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