Eco-Tourism offers hope for coral reef conservation efforts

Snapshot of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia, 2012.  The Great Barrier Reef is one of the many reefs that suffers from significant bleaching. (Robert Linsdell/Creative Commons)

Just last week here in Storrs, we enjoyed an unprecedented stretch of beautiful weather. With temperatures getting into the high 60s and low 70s, buses were empty, and students were wearing shorts and playing Frisbee. However, many students failed to acknowledge the elephant in the room: while the weather was terrific, this bizarre heat wave was our planet’s way of showing us just how much global climate change is taking effect.

It is important to remember that while the warmer weather might have been nice for those of us who normally have to tough out the chilly New England winters, it can be harmful to many others. In fact, this change in temperature can be devastating for the world’s most populated area: the ocean. An estimated 50 to 80 percent of the world’s species live in the ocean, and of this number, about 25 percent of these marine species live within coral reef systems. Across the world, coral reefs are dying out in a process called “coral bleaching.” Fortunately, environmental groups hope to reverse this phenomenon through a prominent source of pollution on our planet: tourism.

Anyone who was ever seen a picture of a coral reef can identify them by their large, irregular shapes and bright, vibrant colors. The algae that live within the tissues of the coral cause these colors. The algae and coral have a symbiotic relationship: the coral gives the algae somewhere to live, while the algae help to nourish its host in return. Unfortunately, the process of coral bleaching, as the name would suggest, strips the coral of its algae and thus its bright colors, effectively killing it. This process occurs when the ocean’s temperature rises, thus heating the coral’s environment. This change in temperature stresses the coral to the point where it expels all of its algae, bleaching and eventually killing it.

 

 (Credit: NOAA) 

As of last April, about 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef is suffering the effects of coral bleaching, according to climatecentral.org. The Belize Barrier Reef, off the coast of North America, is also endangered. As two of the largest coral reefs in the world, these examples show the scope of this phenomenon.

It is this widespread coral death that programs like Outrigger Ozone hope to end. Outrigger Ozone is an initiative run through Outrigger Hotels and Resorts that is “centered on protecting the health of coral reefs and the oceans surrounding the iconic beach destinations of Outrigger Resorts”. The program, which was launched in 2015, aims to combine tourism with sustainability by having travelers take classes in reef conservation, aid in cleaning up the reefs and assist in planting new coral beds. While the process is slow, Outrigger—as well as a few other resorts nearby—have had very successful starts to their programs.

According to Jennifer Billock of the New York Times, “The Outrigger team alone has already planted about 21,450 square feet of new coral (roughly 37 percent of their target goal, to plant a football field’s worth of coral by 2025)”. In only two years, the program is over one third of the way to its goal.

Tourism is not known for its positive impact on the environment, especially with regard to the ocean. Just this past month, plans for a Nickelodeon-themed underwater park located off the coast of the Philippines caused huge controversy among environmentalists, spurring an online petition against the project. However, with groups like Outrigger Ozone attempting to promote sustainability through their resorts, this may be subject to change.


With over two million tourists a year snorkeling or scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef, implementing coral planting programs in this area would help patch the hole that coral bleaching leaves. While this process cannot undo the damage that has already been done to our reefs, it will help rebuild and regrow so that reefs, and all their inhabitants will not be doomed to extinction.


Emma Hungaski is an opinion contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at emma.hungaski@uconn.edu.