Close encounters of the worst kind: reforms needed to curb coral reef damage by recreational divers


Intentional and unintentional physical contact between scuba divers and the seabed is made by most divers and multiple times per dive, which often results in damage to corals and other marine life. Current efforts to reduce reef contacts (e.g., voluntary dive operator recognition programs and voluntary dive standards) can be effective, but lack sufficient incentive structures for longterm compliance. In their current capacity, these programs fail to reduce reef contacts to tolerable levels. Regulatory policies can facilitate pervasive and permanent shifts in human behavior, but have been underutilized to change unsustainable underwater norms. Most coral reefs open to recreational diving lie within territorial waters of individual countries, and many already have existing forms of protection with legislation that can be easily modified. Successful policy precedents in Marine Protected Areas (e.g., bans on underwater glove use) and elsewhere (e.g., antismoking laws in public spaces and legislation enforcing seat belt use) demonstrate the largely untapped potential of using effective governance to change destructive diving norms for good. To reduce intentional reef contacts, policy-makers can enact regulations in MPAs directly banning all contact between divers and the seabed. To reduce unintentional contacts, policy-makers can create policy safeguards that preempt such occurrences (e.g., requiring divers to keep a certain distance from the seabed). Crucially, such policies will need accompanying formal and informal enforcement measures that are equitable, effective, and efficient to motivate compliance and effect lasting behavior change. Having a robust, well-enforced, regulatory framework to tackle both types of reef contacts lends credence to the efforts of existing conservation programs, and is key to permanently changing divers’ underwater attitudes and fostering sustainable scuba diving behavior to the benefit of all.

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