Vieques reefs- positive suggestions

Doug Fenner d.fenner at
Fri Dec 3 10:01:46 EST 1999

Some positive suggestions for Vieques, that may apply to other locations as

1.  I think that we all are agreed that bombing reefs or island ecologies
does not improve them- they do in fact damage them (pretty severely where
the bomb drops, no doubt about it).  And it is something that reefs have
not evolved to cope with, as they have with hurricanes.  The original
petition was asking for a cessation of active bombing of Vieques, which
will undoubtedly help the reefs as well as land ecology and local
residents.  Some of the discussion has been about what to do after the
bombs stop falling.  I suggested that leaving it an inactive military base
might preserve the reef better than allowing unlimited development.
Well-planned and regulated development may be able to preserve the reef and
be better for local inhabitants as well, but unbridled development may be
worse for all involved, possibly even worse for the reef than continued
active bombing of the island and presumably collateral (accidental) bomb
damage to reefs (seems unlikely the Navy is deliberately targeting the
reefs- they just happen to be nearby and get hit from time to time).

Ideas for after the military leaves:

2.  No-extraction reserves can significantly increase fishing yields in
other nearby areas.  Increased fish abundances may produce spillover of
fish into nearby fished areas.  Larger adult sizes allows greatly increased
reproductive effort that may seed large areas of surrounding or downstream
fishing areas.  In effect, reserves are natural fish farms, which also
preserve pieces of the environment.   Apo Island, Philippines is an
outstanding example.  So successful is the reserve system in that part of
the Philippines, that villages ask to have reserves set up near them!

3.  Consultation of all stakeholders is a must.  Dictatorial edicts of
central government agencies, including military, that do not involve
consultation with local residents builds animosity and may make the project
more difficult or even impossible to implement.  Besides, it's just plain
not democratic.  Persuasion, by the facts and good arguments is the tool of
choice (not force), and it can (and probably should) go both ways- all
parties need to listen as well as make their cases.  Sham consultations
after the decision has been made will not do the job.  Decisions and the
process leading to them, must be transparent, i.e., public record.
Absolute consensus of all stakeholder parties is often not possible.  If
the process is perceived to be open and fair, those whose views are not
followed will be less likely to be resentful and seek ways to sabotage the
adopted plan.  As those doing environmental impact assessments say, if you
consult and work with all parties, especially environmental groups and
those potentially opposed, from the beginning of planning, you can almost
always avoid the very expensive and difficult conflicts and suits in the
late stages of a project.  Consulting all the parties is just plain smart
and in your own interest.

4.  No-extraction reserves can be used for sustainable, non-destructive
uses that provide much more economic benefit to the local community than
fishing.  Dive tourism can be carried out on an amazingly large scale with
surprisingly little effect on reefs.  And the economic payoff can be huge-
at $50 or so per dive, a moderate size operation can bring in a million
dollars in just a couple years.  Divers are attracted much more by large
fish, and repelled by a lack of fish.  Dead, a big fish is worth a few
dollars in most markets.  Alive, it's made of solid gold, and can keep
pulling the income in year after year.  And diving employs quite a few
people- divemasters, instructors, boat captains and crews, plus all the
hotel workers, restaurant, curio shop, transportation, etc.
    A prime example- Cozumel, Mexico, one of the 3 biggest hard
currency-earning resort areas in the whole of Mexico.  With a town of
60,000+ people living primarily off of divers and the cascading effect of
all the services they purchase.  With an average of 2000 dives per day, 364
days a year, the roughly 10 miles of reef that draws the divers receives so
little damage from divers that the reef continued to recover from the mild
effects of Hurricane Gilbert even when diving had returned to 2000 dives
per day.  The coral looks great, and the reefs swarm with fish, including
big ones like 4 foot long groupers.  And the whole dive industry and reef
protection there grew out of the divers liking what they saw, and the
fishermen finding out they could make a lot more money taking divers out
than fishing.  The reef protection was very much a local initiative.
   The beauty is that a reserve can both serve to boost local fisheries in
areas outside the reserve, and provide the basis for a thriving diving
industry.  Both fishermen and dive operators benefit, and need not be in
conflict.  And the reef benefits.
   If diving is not properly managed, it too can be destructive.  There are
published reports of damage from divers in the Red Sea.  And to be
realistic, diving will always cause some damage, but it can be really quite
minor damage compared to other alternative uses of reefs.  And it's
probably a practical reality that most reefs will have use of some kind or
other by humans- we are lucky if we get any choice about which kind of use
that is.  The best we can do is to minimize damage, hopefully well below
the level the reef can recover from.

5. Human population centers, certainly including the tourist
accommodations, are best located away from or downstream from reefs.  Human
populations living close to reefs usually have deleterious effects on those
reefs.  The closer the people are and the larger their number, the more
strictly all sorts of things must be controlled to protect the reef.  Land
clearing, construction, and runoff and sewage disposal are big ones, but
there are probably others, such as gray water disposal, fertilizers &
pesticides used on fields, gardens, and ornamental plants, etc.  Example:
reefs near the population of Curacao are degraded, while those a few
kilometers away upstream are in good shape.

6.  All-inclusive luxury resorts are no help to the local community.
Small-scale, locally owned operations are.  Most large luxury resorts have
outside owners.  Patrons pay the owners through their travel agent, and
very little of the money ever gets to the local community the resort is
located in.  The patrons often don't leave the premises for meals or other
services.  This system fosters a class system with a huge gap between
wealthy visitors and poor residents, that does not foster understanding or
tolerance, and may even encourage abuse.  Small, locally owned facilities
ensure that the income goes into the local community, more local people are
employed and benefit, the society has less economic gap between visitors
and locals, and the closer contact fosters more understanding and
tolerance, maybe even enjoying learning a little bit about another culture.
Douglas Fenner, Ph.D.
Coral Biodiversity/Taxonomist
Australian Institute of Marine Science
PMB No 3
Townsville MC
Queensland 4810
phone 07 4753 4334
e-mail: d.fenner at
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