07 Jun 2018 Story Oceans & seas

This summer, let’s protect our coral reefs

Whether you prefer to explore the shallows off the coast of a tropical beach with a snorkel and flipper, or dive deeper into the crystal clear waters, the small choices that you make as you explore the oceans – from the sunscreen that you apply to where you put your feet – can help to minimize the increasing pressure on the world’s threatened coral reefs.

Our fascination with the underwater world is growing year on year, and so too is our impact on it. Diving and marine-based tourism continue to increase, with scuba diving and snorkelling both ranked among the top recreational activities globally. It is estimated more than 1 million new divers are certified annually. “On-reef” tourism alone, such as diving, snorkelling, and marine wildlife viewing, generates an estimated $19 billion globally, according to The Nature Conservancy.  

A school of fish off the coast of Malaysia (Coral Reef Image Bank)

The world’s coral reefs are much more than objects of beauty. Although they only cover 0.1 per cent of the Earth’s surface, they house 25 per cent of all marine life and provide food and livelihoods for more than half a billion people.

Yet due to the human impacts of warming sea temperatures from climate change, overfishing, destructive fishing, ocean acidification, pollution, and a range of land-based activities, the planet’s oceans and seas have already lost at least one fifth of their coral reefs, with some estimates placing the loss of live coral as high as 50 per cent. Experts warn that at the current rate of coral reef decline, by 2050, all of the world’s reefs could be damaged beyond repair.

What you can do

Diving and snorkelling

The International Coral Reef Initiative declared 2018 the International Year of the Reef (IYOR).  Green Fins, established by UN Environment and The Reef-World Foundation to make the dive industry more sustainable, has launched a social media campaign, #GreenFinsIYOR2018, with the aim of making sustainable diving practices the social norm.

Diving and snorkelling practices can both pose a threat to healthy coral reefs and marine life. It is estimated that 88 per cent of divers make harmful contact with the reef at least once during a dive. A single dive site can suffer more than 200,000 damaging incidents per year, from trampling and kicking coral with fins, deliberately breaking coral for keepsakes, and destructive boat anchorage. For both diving and snorkelling, poor buoyancy can cause people to make contact with the reef. To help prevent this, make sure to wear a life jacket while snorkelling and spend time practicing your buoyancy skills if you are a diver. Find this and more advice on the newly released Green Fins infographic.

How we interact with coral reefs is critical to their survival. (Coral Reef Image Bank)

Green Fins is working with more than 500 diving and snorkeling operators throughout South East Asia, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, to help them reduce the industry’s pressure on coral reefs and educate divers on how to achieve zero-impact dives. And they are having some real impact with some of the giants in the dive industry.

At a recent Dive Expo in Singapore, ADEX, some of the largest businesses in the industry shared the sustainable practices they have introduced into their consumption and production patterns and what they hope to do in the near future to minimize impacts to life below water. Fourth Element, a diving equipment supplier, is on the way to eliminating all single-use plastics and currently manufactures a wetsuit using recycled “ghost” fishing nets as part of its OceanPositive collection. Worldwide Dive and Sail, another major player in the diving industry, are also in the process of ridding their business of single-use plastics.   

“The more people experience the wonders of coral reefs, the more we hope they will fight to protect them for future generations,” said Gabriel Grimsditch, a UN Environment marine ecosystems expert. “When we are diving or snorkelling remember not to touch or trample the coral, practice buoyancy before you go for your dive and request boat operators not to anchor on or near reefs. We can each take small actions to ensure we don’t leave a harmful scar.”


A recent report by International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), Impacts of Sunscreens on Coral Reefs, assessed new research on the emerging issue. The report identified research conducted in the laboratory setting, showing chemicals used as UV filters in sunscreen products, such as oxybenzone, can have a direct effect on coral health if used in large concentration.  

Mexico has taken the precautionary step to ban sunscreen lotions with harmful chemicals in some of its premiere marine parks. While in Hawaii, they have taken it a step further, recently passing a bill banning the sale of sunscreen lotions state wide that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, set to come into place January 2021.

To be on the safe side, consumers can now make the choice to use “reef-friendly” sunscreens free of the more controversial UV filters such as oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work on oceans and seas.