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A swimmer on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia

Rubén Torres has seen for himself just how dependent local communities, especially those in developing countries, are on the health of coral reefs. Torres works for a group called Reef Check Dominican Republic at La Caleta Marine Park in the Dominican Republic. Torres says that for many years, fishermen relied on the fish that live in and around the coral reefs in La Caleta both for food and income. But the dependence locals had on the reefs was obvious whenever anybody went diving there. “Our initial data shows what divers were experiencing: There were no fish in La Caleta anymore,” Torres says. Other factors were also degrading the reef, including when divers would drop anchors for their boats onto the reefs, thereby destroying the underlying corals.

Three years ago, Torres and others at Reef Check DR began working on ways to continue to meet the economic and sustenance needs of people living near La Caleta while also ensuring that the reefs themselves would survive — two factors that, while interdependent, sometimes create tension between people’s short- and long-term needs. “It has been a very difficult process, given that fishermen need to continue to sustain their families,” Torres says. “Humans need to have other alternatives for their livelihoods.”

Figuring out ways to help both reefs and people prosper became the task of Torres and his group. Understanding that overfishing could not be sustained either biologically­ or economically, Torres worked to train fishermen in alternative ways of generating income, including the development of sustainable lobster-fishing practices, which involved creating artificial lobster habitats away from the reef, as well as encouraging deep-sea fishing as another way to lower the fishing pressure at the reef. At the same time, Torres assisted locals in making transitions from fishing to tourism. “We supported local fishermen to open a local aquatic center so they can make more money from tourism than from fishing,” he says.

While it was a difficult transition, Torres says, the result is that marine life is bouncing back quickly and people can earn a better living than before. Torres says he has learned that striking this delicate balance between the needs of reefs and people is key. “I have learned that protecting biodiversity ‘just because’ is not going to do the trick,” he says.

What Torres and others have also learned is that even the very best-intentioned suggestions and plans for reef protection can be rejected and resented if they’re imposed by outsiders, which is one of the reasons that the many suggestions “Reefs at Risk” offers for improving the situation worldwide, including establishing sustainable fishing and no-fishing areas, work best when they’re homegrown. And that is exactly what has happened in Fiji. “For many centuries, Pacific Islanders, not just in Fiji, have had a tradition of caring for resources,” says Stacy Jupiter, the Fiji Country Program Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “When they noticed fish fleeing quickly or there aren’t as many of them, they put in place a ‘taboo’ area and would say no fishing in this area for a certain amount of time.”

Jupiter worked with local tribal chiefs and the government in order to implement these no-fishing or limited-fishing areas in 20 different coral reef locations within the Kubula District. At the same time, with the notion of helping to provide economic alternatives in mind, Jupiter worked with locals to implement a system where tourists hoping to dive in the set-aside areas would pay for a user tag in addition to whatever fees they paid to dive-boat operators. “The fees for the tags go back to the community,” she says. “That brings in money for the community­ that is used for scholarships and other ­community-development projects.”

As has been the case in the Dominican Republic, the results for Fiji’s reefs and people are encouraging. Establishing and managing these fishing reserve areas have encouraged fish to return both outside and within­ their boundaries. “That is why you set these things up, because the fish density will increase within the reserve and spill out where people can still fish,” Jupiter says. With more cases like those in Fiji and the Dominican Republic, hopefully the next World Resources Institute report will be titled “Reefs No Longer at Risk.”