Q&A with Reef-World Director, JJ Harvey
Here, we talk with JJ Harvey, scuba diver, passionate ocean conservationist and director of The Reef-World Foundation—a marine conservation nonprofit organization which leads the global implementation of the U.N. Environment’s Green Fins initiative. He tells us why coral reefs are so important, how diving affects coral reefs and what can be done to protect them.
Q: What is The Reef-World Foundation?
A: The Reef-World Foundation is a U.K. charity, which operates internationally to inspire, empower and support governments, businesses, communities and individuals to act to protect marine environments—particularly coral reefs and related ecosystems—for the benefit of local communities, visitors and future generations.
Our work has been proven to reduce threats to, and protect, one of the world’s most valuable ecosystems: coral reefs. By inspiring, educating and empowering the people who live with and rely on coral reefs to take a stand in the front lines of ocean conservation, we are making a tangible difference to the protection of these delicate ecosystems.
Q: How did you get involved with Reef-World?
A: As with many things in life, it was a combination of hard work, a bit of luck and being in the right place at the right time. I was actively seeking out overseas volunteer positions in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to gain experience with my partner, Chloe (now wife and co-director of Reef-World), and in Thailand when I came across Reef-World.
The charity was supporting the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources in Thailand who was involved with the Green Fins initiative. We volunteered, worked seven days a week, travelled on budgets, built furniture out of driftwood and borrowed clothes and transport before returning to the U.K. to help save up some financial resources. This was all to pursue a cause we strongly believed in: helping to grow and develop the world’s only recognized environmental standards for diving and snorkelling.
We were then employed by Reef-World! As a result, we managed to secure additional funding from the U.N. Environment and we developed and tested the Green Fins assessment model. Now, 11 years and 10 countries later, Green Fins is accepted as an effective management approach that has been proven (by two scientific papers) to reduce negative impacts from the marine tourism industry.
Q: Did you always want to be involved in marine conservation?
A: Honestly, no. However, since a young age, I’ve been fascinated by the sea and was unimpressed with family and friends not being able to answer my many questions about the marine life I was seeing in rock pools around the southwest of the U.K. I enjoyed surfing, water sports and ocean swimming and always wanted to find out more about the marine life to which I was exposed. Because of this, choosing marine biology was an obvious decision for me. Like medicine, there are so many avenues within marine biology to get involved in and the most common path was that of continuing pure academic research.
The combined effect of seeing the continual decline in the populations and health of different species, while witnessing so many scientists carrying out research that didn’t lead to a positive impact on the marine environment, led me to get into marine conservation. But my clear focus is to use scientific evidence and findings to help turn the tide on the degradation of marine ecosystems.
Q: Why do you think coral reef conservation is so important?
A: Because coral reefs are some of the most valuable ecosystems on the planet. Occupying less than one quarter of 1% of the marine environment, coral reefs are home to more than 25% of all known marine species. Without coral, the ocean would lose a huge diversity of life.
Coral reefs are vital to a healthy ocean; they provide a habitat for marine life, protect the coastline from storms and provide us with natural resources, such as food and medicine. A square kilometer of healthy, well-managed coral reef can yield a catch of over 15 tons of fish and seafood every year and act as the first line of defense from coastal storms—not to mention the jobs created through the diving and snorkeling industry.
We’re at real risk of losing coral reefs within a generation but hope is not lost. We can all work together to protect these inspiring and wonderful creatures that we, ultimately, depend on for future generations.
Q: How does Reef-World work alongside the diving and snorkelling industry to help operators reduce their environmental impact?
A: Reef-World is the international coordinator of the U.N. Environment’s Green Fins initiative, which focuses on driving environmentally friendly scuba diving and snorkeling practices across the industry globally. Green Fins provides the only internationally recognized environmental standards for the diving and snorkelling industry and, each year, members undergo an assessment which evaluates their level of environmental impact and ensures they are improving year over year. The initiative is currently active in Antigua and Barbuda, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives, Palau, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Q: What happens during a Green Fins assessment?
A: During a Green Fins assessment, a fully trained Green Fins Assessor will visit the dive or snorkel center and join a regular diving or snorkelling trip with the guests to observe the staff and customers, look around the shop and ask a few questions. This allows the Assessor to observe what the operator is doing well and determine three action points for improvement over the following year.
The Assessor will meet with the dive center’s owner or manager to discuss these action points as well as run environmental training sessions to help the staff and crew (everyone from dive instructors to the boat skippers and support staff) improve their environmental knowledge and awareness; everyone involved in the running of a dive industry has some kind of environmental impact, so we want to make sure this education is spread throughout the business, rather than just being shared with upper-level management or owners.
The individual feedback and support provided, which includes practical, low-cost alternatives to common threats to the marine environment such as anchoring, provision of single-use plastics (e.g. plastic bottles) and lack of awareness to existing rules and regulations is based on each company’s area of highest negative impact on the reef, as determined by the assessment.
Q: What advice do you have for dive operators who want to become more environmentally sustainable?
A: Knowing where to start can feel quite overwhelming—but the first step is, arguably, the most important. There’s lots of information and support available for dive and snorkel operators who want to improve their environmental processes; that’s exactly why the Green Fins approach was developed. Operators in our active Green Fins locations can sign up as a member or, if the initiative isn’t yet active in your location, you can begin using Green Fins’ free tools and resources to lower your environmental impact—whether you’re struggling with managing marine debris, reducing single-use plastic or improving the environmental content in your pre-dive briefings.
Q: Green Fins is focused on reducing the negative impact of scuba diving and snorkelling on coral reefs. How does diving and snorkelling affect reefs?
A: Diving-related damage to coral reefs is becoming increasingly significant. It makes coral more vulnerable to global threats such as overfishing or the effects of climate change, such as rising sea temperatures often leading to coral bleaching.
Yet, coral reefs are remarkably resilient; by removing direct threats posed by marine tourism, reefs are better able to survive wider stressors. According to The Nature Conservancy, reef-related tourism such as diving, snorkelling and marine wildlife viewing generates something in the region of $19 billion globally. If done sustainably, this can generate employment for local communities, offer a meaningful contribution to the social welfare of residents and provide alternatives for less sustainable livelihoods such as fishing. That’s why we’re working to help dive and snorkel operators reduce their negative impact and help protect coral reefs for future generations.
Q: Reef-World recently implemented Green Fins in Antigua and Barbuda thanks to a partnership with cosmetic company, Caudalie which came about through the 1% for the Planet movement. What was involved in setting up the initiative?
A: I recently visited Antigua and Barbuda to set up Green Fins alongside the government. This trip was entirely funded through the generous support of Caudalie: a 1% for the Planet member. Through 1% for the Planet, Caudalie chose Reef-World to help protect coral reefs.
We were delighted to have been discovered and selected by Caudalie just a few months after being approved as a 1% for the Planet nonprofit partner in late 2018, and we look forward to being connected with other companies in the future whose ethos aligns with ours and with whom we can create a similar and mutually beneficial partnership.
Antigua and Barbuda had been requesting Green Fins training for several years, so it was fantastic to finally be able to implement the initiative there. During the visit, I ran a week of training to certify a national team (made up of the Ministry of Tourism and the Fisheries Division) to recruit, train and conduct assessments of new Green Fins members in the country. This involves training about the ecology and threats to coral reefs, simple and local everyday solutions to these threats and Green Fins’ environmental standards to dive and snorkel operators. The country now has a national team of two senior Green Fins Network leaders, three Green Fins assessors and three dive schools joining the global network of more than 560 trained and assessed Green Fins member dive and snorkel operators, with many more dive schools already showing interest in joining.
Q: What was that week setting up Green Fins in Antigua and Barbuda like?
A: Busy! Training new Green Fins teams and undertaking assessments are always hard work so it was pretty non-stop getting everything underway: running training sessions, helping with the organisation of assessments and assessing the new dive school members. I was even interviewed by a TV station about our work to protect coral reefs in the region and then a separate press launch alongside the Minister of Environment! Safe to say, the weeks we’re in the field are always pretty exhausting.
Q: Tell us about the Green Fins Dive Guide e-Course which launched recently – why did Reef-World create it?
A: The new Green Fins Dive Guide e-Course is the only course which teaches dive professionals how to prevent diving-related damage to coral reefs by following the highest environmental standards, as set out by the Green Fins initiative. We created this course to help scuba professionals maximize their ability to positively influence diver behavior and better manage their guests to prevent them causing damage to coral reefs. It’s been very popular so far with hundreds of dive professionals signing up to improve their environmental awareness.
Q: In the spirit of #PlasticFreeJuly, how is Reef-World helping Green Fins’ members reduce their plastic use?
A: Many dive operators struggle with the challenge to reduce single-use plastics. The Green Fins website has lots of tools and resources to help; for example, our downloadable poster which reminds people to say no to plastic is really popular for dive and snorkel operators to display in their shops.
Most recently, for #PlasticFreeJuly, we’ve launched two new posters: checklists of ways dive operators and divers (respectively) can reduce their plastic usage (e.g. refusing plastic straws, stirrers and bottles, using recycling bins correctly and collecting trash on dives).