FROM DIVER Magazine
Don't kill sharks with kindness
by Sam Pollard
MARINE CONSERVATION SOCIETY
FOR MANY divers the dream of diving with sharks is becoming reality, as operators market the best sites to experience the ultimate in wildlife-watching.
In the Red Sea and Baja California, reef sharks and hammerheads naturally occur in large groups and can be observed by divers with little intrusion. Such experiences can be beneficial to both parties; the diver has the experience of a lifetime, while a monetary value is given to sharks as a living resource.
Changing the old adage "the only good shark is a dead shark" is an important step in their conservation, especially as they are currently worth far more dead than alive to many fishermen.
But if shark tourism is to grow it must be developed responsibly, with the well-being of the shark, minimal impact on the ecosystem and diver safety put before getting as many sharks and divers as possible in one place at a time.
Shark-feeding and baiting is increasingly used to guarantee divers a close-up view. Yet creating the potential for sharks to associate divers with food could lead them to approach divers unwilling or unprepared to come face to face with a shark.
Feeding frenzies have already resulted in divers being bitten, so far with no reports of serious consequences, but how long before a diver panics, or a shark bites too hard?
Also, the effects of regular site-specific feeding on sharks' social and feeding behaviour are unknown. Feeding bears in US National Parks was banned when bears started to attack, with fatal consequences, campers while searching through tents for food.
The MCS urges divers to be cautious. Enjoy observing sharks in their element, but do not support shark-feeding. Diving in with a bag full of fish puts others at risk and, if attacks become more frequent, could set back seriously the protection of sharks.
Role model of Oz
by Jason Gibb
The Great Barrier Reef, one of the most desirable diving destinations, is now a role model. With its Marine Park Authority running the International Coral Reef Initiative, Australia has become the guardian of the world's reefs. So how does it protect and develop its own reef ecosystems?
The Marine Park was set up as a "multiple-use protected area" in hope of balancing conservation with reasonable use by scientists, fishermen, divers and operators.
This is no easy task, given a reef roughly the size of Britain and amazingly diverse in terms of species: 4000 corals, 1500 fish, 350 echinoderms, over 4000 molluscs, thousands of crustaceans and sponges, plus humpback whales and dugongs. It also boasts a vast number of protected wrecks.
Marine life is protected by zoning the reef to separate conflicting activities. At one extreme are Preservation Zones, which no one can enter unless engaged on scientific research, at the other General Use "A" Zones, where almost any legal activity other than scuba-spearfishing goes.
Development continues at a blistering pace. Tourism, the biggest industry in the region, is growing at 18 per cent a year.
Diving is the fastest-growing activity, but divers are taught to respect the reefs. US dive instructor and biologist Lawrence Buckingham came to Australia because "this is where it's at in terms of coral reef management." He says instructors are increasingly knowledgeable about the reef ecosystem: "Few trips go out these days without there being a marine biologist among the crew. When I first came here from America a few years ago this wasn't the case."
Financial incentives help too, he stresses. Operators taking day trips out to the reef always go to one particular pontoon for which they must buy a permit. This provides revenue for the authority, and it is in the operator's interests to ensure that the reef around the pontoon stays in pristine condition so that the punters keep coming.
The Marine Park also turns a blind eye to fish-feeding. One marine biologist told me: "The benefits well outweigh any disruption of the ecosystem, as so many divers are attracted by the fish feeds. That means more money for the Marine Park and better conservation." Let's hope it stays that way.
Appeared in DIVER - March 1997
Stopping the rot
by Dr Elizabeth Wood
As you read the features in this issue about the International Year of the Reef, you may well be asking: why reefs, and why now? The answer is simple. With 10 per cent of reefs badly degraded and many more under threat, there is no point in sitting back and waiting for the inevitable to happen. Better to take action and seek solutions before it is too late.
Reefs are already suffering from siltation, sewage contamination, developments on adjacent coastal lands, overexploitation of resources and destructive fishing techniques such as the use of explosives and cyanide. Pressure on these valuable and beautiful ecosystems is set to increase - but there are many positive actions that can help to turn the tide.
So how is IYOR organised and what will it do? The first important point is that it is an entirely voluntary effort, run by individuals and organisations committed to seeing a brighter future for reefs.
At the 1996 International Coral Reef Symposium in Panama City more than 1200 participants, including many of the world's top coral-reef scientists, pledged their support for IYOR. Subsequently thousands of others have become involved, with action groups being set up in numerous countries.
IYOR is providing a special boost for reefs in terms of research, monitoring, appreciation, education and management. During the year there will be many activities going on around the world, from rapid reef assessments and re-surveys to custodianship programmes, special exhibitions and fund-raising events.
Here in the UK, organisations with an interest in reefs are working together to ensure a co-ordinated effort for the year ahead, and many are also putting together their own programmes. For example, the MCS will be carrying out reef survey and monitoring projects, running reef life and ecology courses in the Red Sea, and launching a wide-ranging reef awareness programme.
The aim of all this is to educate and inform, to produce workable solutions to problems and to encourage everyone to help in the international efforts to conserve reefs and their resources.
For more information on IYOR please send a large SAE to the MCS at 9 Gloucester Road, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, HR9 5BU.
More on IYOR
Appeared in Diver - January 1997
by Jason Gibb
Conservation diving has grown beyond the realm of a couple of divers noticing that they have caught fewer lobsters than last year, to become an important part of the UK and indeed world diving scene. More diving hours are spent on underwater surveying than ever before.
But how useful are the observations of volunteers who usually have little or no scientific training? "Very useful," says marine biologist Rob Irving, recently returned from an annual expedition to the Isles of Scilly.
The IoS possesses nationally important populations of eel-grass, which over the past century have periodically been infected by a wasting disease. "We would not have known about the patterns of infection if volunteers had not been surveying the beds for the past five years," says Rob.
Well-organised surveys do not require the diver to have intricate knowledge of marine life but are designed to get an overall picture of the nature and health of marine habitats. English Nature and the IoS Environmental Trust are so impressed with the data collected by diving volunteers that they are now setting out a five-year strategy to survey more of the islands.
On another island, this time in the Irish Sea, sponsorship has just been secured for a third year of underwater surveys. Marine biologists stationed on the Isle of Man believe that with the help of volunteer divers they will have surveyed the whole of the island's coast by next year.
Survey organiser Mike Bates says there is a "lack of baseline knowledge of underwater habitats around the island. Because of oil and gas exploration off the coast we need to identify the important areas."
So it looks as if with the enthusiasm and experience of British divers a lot of interesting and useful data is being produced. In any case, if divers can learn a little about the complexity and sometimes vulnerability of marine habitats by carrying out these surveys, this can only be good news.
- You can contact the IoS Expedition at CCC-SAC, 154 Clapham Park Road, London, SW4 7DE, and Mike Bates at the Port Erin Marine Laboratory, Port Erin, Isle of Man IM9 6JA.
Appeared in Diver - October 1996
Six months have passed since the Sea Empress ran aground off the South Wales coast, spilling 72,000 tonnes of crude oil into one of Britain's most beautiful marine areas. Unfortunately, protective legislation is no guarantee against such a disaster. The Marine Nature Reserves at Skomer and Lundy and 26 other sites of special scientific interest were affected in varying degrees. Over 7000 birds have been found either dead or oiled, but that is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg regarding the total price to be paid by the marine environment.
The MCS has received varied reports from divers who have returned to sites along the Pembroke coast. Some reported no signs of oil under water, while others found "pavements" of oil on the sea floor. Preliminary assessments indicate that of the 72,000 tonnes spilled, 40,000 tonnes remained at sea, either dispersed by chemicals or mixed naturally into the water column.
Unfortunately, there was no "Bermuda Triangle" to swallow 40,000 tonnes of oil, and quantities will have been taken up by marine life, especially plankton and filter feeders such as shellfish. The toxic components of the oil can then affect animals further up the food chain, adding to the long-term impacts of the spill which, we believe, will be with us into the new millennium.
The rocky shores around Milford Haven are no longer the delight of amateur naturalists and keen scientists. With the mortality of grazers such as limpets, top shells and winkles, which previously kept the growth of seaweed in check, a "green flush" of filamentous seaweed now coats many rocky shores in the affected area. It may take 5-10 years before the original natural balance and diversity is restored.
Though the beaches may now appear golden and the waters clear, we must not forget that it is the wildlife of the South Wales coast that now carries the legacy of the Sea Empress. We have the technology to extract oil from hostile marine environments; we should ensure that we have an oil transport policy that does not jeopardise them.
Appeared in DIVER - August 1996
by Sam Pollard
Do you see as many drink cans lodged among the boulders of your favourite site as you used to see shore crabs? Have you ever been caught by a fishing hook lurking among the seaweed? Or been horrified to identify a 'new species of marine life' as a floating remnant of sanitary waste on closer inspection?
Our seas are being used as a communal dumping ground for anything and everything from plastic bottles to plastic sandals; from fishing nets to traffic cones and condoms to cotton bud sticks. The Marine Conservation Society has been fighting this tide of litter for four years through an annual national clean-up and survey of the litter found on beaches and beneath the waves.
In Beachwatch '95 over half of the 300,000 items of rubbish recorded were made of plastic, which takes decades to break down and accumulates in the seas and on our beaches. Sources of this litter include sewage outfalls, rubbish dumped overboard at sea, fishing vessels, rivers and day-trippers.
Under water, the most common item found is fishing line, which can entangle both diving equipment and marine wildlife. World-wide, an estimated 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year from entanglement in, or ingestion of, plastics. On Grassholm, off Pembrokeshire, over 90 per cent of the gannet nests contain plastic, which often entangles the young chicks. The Orkney Seal Rescue Service is recovering increasing numbers of seals found entangled in netting. All seven species of sea turtle are threatened with extinction - many that are found dead on beaches have plastic bags, which they mistake for jellyfish, blocking their guts.
But it's not only wildlife which faces a deadly obstacle course of marine debris left in the wake of humans. Divers also suffer from the increasing amounts of rubbish both above and below the low water mark. Dive sites are being polluted with sewage debris, fishing debris and consumer waste. Get involved with our Adopt-a-Dive Site scheme to collect and record the litter at your dive sites.
Call 01989-566017 for details.
Appeared in DIVER - April 1996