Wednesday, 31 Oct 2001

SANTA CRUZ, Calif.

Today I got up early and went surfing as the sun rose. The water was cold, 54 degrees Fahrenheit, but the waves were great — about two feet overhead, clean and glassy. So even though it’s still morning, I’ve already had a good day; I feel charged and ready for work.

In checking my email, I found an invitation from the International Ecotourism Society to teach a workshop on marine ecotourism for the World Ecotourism Summit taking place in Quebec in 2002. Next year has been designated by the United Nations as the year of Ecotourism, so the opportunity to teach a workshop feels like a big deal and quite an honor.

A soldier fish swims behind some gray sponges and in front of red soft corals.

Photo: Ocean Futures Society.

The author of the email asks for a range of ideas about what kind of workshop I’d like to present. Good question. My first thought is to conduct a workshop on the relevance of ecology to marine ecotourism development. To protect something it helps to know how it works, so it would be great to have a workshop on coral reef ecology, including a consideration of how we use energy and recycle waste, how biodiversity benefits the community and how everything is interconnected — even human beings and tiny marine critters.

I also propose a workshop on how human activities threaten coral reefs and what we can do to protect them. This workshop would focus on topics such as global warming (the effects of which I discussed yesterday); how sediments and nutrients stress corals; how using dynamite and cyanide to catch fish harms the entire reef community; and how pollution can impair coral reproduction. We would also discuss solutions to these problems — that is, how you can help at the local level, even if you live far from coral reefs. For example, a group called the Marine Aquarium Council certifies animals for the aquarium trade. Since many aquarium fish are captured in a way that is destructive to reefs, this group points the consumer to fish that have been caught responsibly, without harming reefs. Like dolphin-safe tuna, this is an example of how consumer awareness can help protect the environment.

Because I work for an educational organization, I also propose a workshop looking at educational programs and tourist expectations. The definition of ecotourism is “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.” This means that tourists must be educated so they will understand how to behave responsibly and not harm either nature or native cultures. It also means that we must work with local people and promote education and environmental awareness in their communities. It is important to remember that people are part of the environment and we need to consider how our activities affect other people, directly and indirectly. Tourists can take fish and shells, eliminating sources of income for local people. On the other hand, tourists can also contribute funds to help community education programs. And tour operators can work with local communities to insure marine resources are managed sustainably so tourists can continue to pay for reef diving and local people can continue to harvest fish.

In all of these workshop proposals, I emphasize one of my favorite themes: interconnectivity. When we think about ecotourism, or agriculture, or industry, or development, we must think very carefully about all of the consequences of our actions to avoid damaging the marine environment. Coral reefs can be affected by everything from cutting the rainforest (sediments and nutrients from rainforest logging often end up in the sea) to population growth (more people means more sewage, which also can leak into the ocean). The goal must be to integrate human activities with nature in ways that minimize harm to the sea.

So that’s about it for my thoughts on the eco-tourism conference. Maybe I’ll see some of you there! One last note for the day: I just got the final proofs from the publisher of a book I wrote on coral reefs. The book (which, if I say so myself, contains spectacular photographs), looks at a coral reef as if it were a city. The coral city runs entirely on solar energy, everything is recycled, there is public health, as well as advertising (including false advertising), cheats and thieves, and even social security. For a science-y book, it’s pretty fun, as I try not to take science too seriously. In fact, I try not to take anything too seriously.