#GivingTuesday: The Ocean Gives Us ….

Divers in San Miguel de Cozumel, Mexico imageNo matter where we live, the ocean touches our lives every day. It gives us food, water, commerce, and recreation. It even provides some of the medicines that heal us and the air we breathe. It gives us oxygen, rain, food, excitement, joy, wonder, mystery and so much more. The most powerful component in ocean conservation is us! From everyday lifestyle changes such as ditching the plastic water bottles for reusable ones to taking part in Dive Against Debris surveys, our actions and our voice have the most powerful impact on the health of our oceans. Today as the world celebrates #GivingTuesday, an international day of giving, let’s give back to the ocean!

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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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Saving Egypt’s bountiful marine life

Published on: June, 2 2011 by Mohamed El Hebeishy, Politics – Egypt – Ahram Online Saving Egypt’s bountiful marine life .

Coral reef in the Red Sea imageA local NGO is attempting to spread awareness of the long term damage to the Red Sea’s eco-system before the damage is irreversible.

A divers’ Mecca, the Red Sea is a unique eco-system that generates millions in tourist revenues, but are we doing what it takes to ensure its long-term sustainability?

It is hard to come across an avid diver who doesn’t dream of diving in the Red Sea. Colourful corals, a multitude of different fish species, a number of sunken shipwrecks and a couple of Marine Megafauna make it an underwater Eden.

“Egypt is privileged with its Red Sea, a one-of-a-kind environment that is facing monumental issues. The Red Sea is in danger,” affirmed Amr Ali, managing director of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA).

A local NGO that focuses on the protection and conservation of the Red Sea environment, HEPCA took off in 1992 when a group of 12 dive operators undertook the mooring system initiative. Boats often use anchors to moor; a method that causes substantial damage to the reef. As an alternative, a buoy-based mooring system was brought to the table. A floating buoy attached to a permanent fixture in the seabed, eliminating the need for anchors. As a first wave, HEPCA installed 100 buoys in different locations along the Egyptian Red Sea coast. Today, HEPCA is taking its mooring knowledge to neighbouring countries.

For years, Egypt has been adapting “the more the merrier” concept when it came to tourism development. The core of the problem is not only in the sheer number of hotels and resorts that now dot the Red Sea coast, but rather in the environmental repercussions that couple the rapid urbanisation.

Take Marsa Alam for example. During the past decade, the small Red Sea town witnessed a tourism boom. Even before all the construction was complete, solid waste was already a prevailing problem ripping through the local environment right, left, and centre.

“Solid waste is an issue to most hotels and resorts. Due to the lack of adequate infrastructure, they often resort to disposing their solid waste in [desert] valleys. Wind blows and everything is back into the sea,” explains Ali. In an attempt to counter this problem, HEPCA launched its Marsa Alam Solid Management Project, an initiative that included collecting solid waste, sorting it and partially recycling some of it while disposing the rest in an environment friendly manner. The project proved successful, and HEPCA recently assumed full responsibility for cleaning up Hurghada, the Red Sea’s most populace city with over 250,000 inhabitants who produce 300 tons of waste on daily basis.

Some of us might mistakenly think that the solid waste problem is restricted to garbage piles around the corner or to rubbish-covered beaches. There is much more to it than just a hygiene issue.

“Plastic bags are a killer in disguise. Sea turtles often mistake them for jelly fish [one of the main components of turtle’s diet]. Once a turtle starts chewing on a plastic bag, it is a matter of time before the turtle is dead,” says Agnese Mancini, a turtle specialist who is in charge of the Red Sea Turtle Project.

In a bid to save the Egyptian Red Sea turtles, the project studies turtles’ behaviour, as well as their feeding and breeding grounds. Hawksbill and Green Turtle are the two main species of sea turtles often found along the Egyptian Red Sea Coast. “Turtles had mostly vanished from the Red Sea Coast’s northern sector, and that is primarily why we are focusing on its southern sector. Here, there is a chance of survival, especially when it comes to different Marine Megafauna,” adds Ali.

Marine Megafauna is an expression that has surfaced recently, even though it traces back to a time when large marine species inhabited the oceans during the Pleistocene age. Today, the term is often used in reference to large, often charismatic, species that depend on seas and oceans for their survival.

The Marine Megafauna list often includes whales, sharks, sting and manta rays, turtles, seals, and even penguins and pelicans. Marine Megafauna often poses as a strong attraction for tourists who happily spends large amount of dollars just to see them, rather than to consume them.

Turtles, dolphins and sharks are the top three Marine Megafauna found in Egypt. And one live turtle, dolphin, or shark is worth much more than a dead one. Shark fin soup is a delicacy in the Far East, and one kilogram of shark fins fetches a couple of hundred dollars; but can we imagine how much a live shark contributes to the local economy?

“The living marine resources of the Red Sea are limited but extremely valuable from the ecological, as well as economical, point of view. Taking the sharks inhabiting the vicinity of Brothers Island as an example, one single shark can generate up to $200,000 a year in tourism revenue. Extrapolating the data on a shark’s average lifespan, which ranges between 20 and 40 years, a live shark can generate somewhere between $4 and 8 million during its lifetime.

On the other hand, a single large shark, as catch, won’t fetch more than a few hundred dollars,” said Prof. Dr.  Mahmoud Hanafy, HEPCA’s chief scientist.

In recent weeks, fishermen were permitted once again into Ras Mohamed National Park, a protected by law eco-system that occupies the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Such a breach of protective measures could have irreversible implications.

“By constructing an over-the-top resort on a beach where turtles nest, or by allowing fishing in a protected area, we will lose the turtles, the different fish species and eventually the tourists,” said HEPCA’s marine biologist Maddalena Fumagalli.

The fishing ban was enforced once again in Ras Mohammed National Park; however, awareness remains a key player in the conservation game.

“Awareness is a very broad word, and we need to tackle it on a multilevel platform, which involves the different layers of the community; from school children to resorts’ GMs, and whatever in between,” says Ali. HEPCA is zealous when it comes to awareness and community involvement; supporting, as well as organising, much of the beach and underwater cleanups that take place along the Egyptian Red Sea coast.

Other tools adapted by HEPCA include awareness nights, where a certain environmental hazard is picked as the topic of discussion. The association also has an environmental school curriculum in the pipeline. The environment-oriented curriculum will pay extra attention to the Red Sea eco-system, and the best practices to safeguard it. It is due to be launched, as a pilot test in Hurghada, sometime in the near future.

Years of improper urban planning, corruption and a due negligence have taken a heavy toll on the Red Sea environment; nonetheless, the game is far from over. There is a lot that can, and will, be done to sustain a long-term tourism industry without devastating the surrounding environment. After all, without the unique Red Sea ecology, we wouldn’t have had those tourist bookings in the first place.

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