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Living Reefs

Published November 25, 2016 in CONSERVATION

The benefits of the Wakatobi Resort conservation model
by Wade Hughes, FRGS

It did cause a bit of a stir. I was a panelist at the Brunei National Environment Conference a few years ago. The panel’s topic was conservation of the oceans and the conference venue, the Empire Hotel, had shark-fin soup on the menu. When the moderator for the panel discussion called for a show of hands to indicate who would support boycotting the soup, I voted against it. In fact, I think I was the only person who did.

Asking the right questions

Given that I’d just made some remarks about my own efforts to promote the conservation of sperm whales, there was some lively reaction from other panel members and some members of the audience. That was understandable. But when the temperature cooled a little, and I was asked to explain, I offered the idea that “Should we boycott shark-fin soup?” was the wrong question.

To be clear: shark-finning, and the demand for it by people who inanely and selfishly support the activity in order to consume tasteless, nutritionless boiled sinews is a devastating blight on the oceans. Healthy oceans underpin innumerable economic and biological benefits for the human race, not least the provision of such life-support conveniences as atmospheric oxygen. People who buy shark fins and shark fin soup are effectively undermining all that for the rest of us. So, I have little sympathy for their behavior.

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For a conservation effort to be sustainable, it has to be founded on sustainable economics, such as the successful programs started 20 years ago by Wakatobi Resort founder Lorenz Mader. Photo by Didi Lotze

Seeking meaningful solutions

But how to stop shark-finning? There are no easy answers. The change has to come from within the deluded and self-obsessed customer base, extend through irresponsible restaurants around the globe (easily found online) to governments, businesses, warehouses and middlemen spread through an array of locations and cultures, then on down to the villages and homes of thousands of some of the world’s poorest fishermen.

It’s very easy for a cool, comfortable and affluent audience to vote to simplistically boycott soup and in so doing, vote to take away the livelihoods of fishermen who depend on this vile market to feed their families and children. But unless the vote comes with some form of commitment to find or support meaningful alternatives for these fishermen and their families, it is meaningless. As I offered in Brunei, a better question might be: “Who will contribute to helping find a better economic alternative for the fishermen paid to catch and kill sharks?” Because for conservation to be sustainable, it has to be founded on sustainable economics.

The sustained health and vitality of coral reefs within the Wakatobi Resort's marine preserve are a direct result of a commitment to working with local communities to create better and more sustainable ecological practices.

The sustained health and vitality of coral reefs within the Wakatobi Resort’s marine preserve are a direct result of a commitment to working with local communities to create better and more sustainable ecological practices. Photo by Wakatobi Resort

A credible choice

Fast-forward a couple of years to when I started looking for a diving destination somewhere within the Coral Triangle. The resorts all look fabulous on their websites, but that’s to be expected. I don’t believe the “pristine waters and reefs” hype so commonly splashed around in promotional materials. I doubt most people do. There are now few, if any, coral reefs in the world that are pristine, meaning in their original condition, and unaffected by human activity. Coral Triangle reefs, like any other marine environments rimmed by large populations, have been fished, exploited, and polluted for centuries.

“We believed, and still do, that the best and most sustainable alternative is to create employment and education opportunities through responsible, conservation-linked tourism.”

Then, these passages of text caught my attention on the Wakatobi website: “Prior to the (conservation) program, the locals were largely dependent on working with foreign, illegal fishing boats to make a living. In the area around Wakatobi, this kind of fishing still occurs, limited however by our patrols, by boats from other areas of Indonesia or other countries. These boats are owned and crewed by people who don’t consider the pressure they are putting on the marine life. The owners don’t pay local taxes, the crew doesn’t care where they throw anchor or deplete marine resources. In the end, locals get very little gain from this kind of activity. But there is no way that anyone with a sustainability agenda could have marched in and simply told the locals to not walk on the reefs and stop supporting the foreign fishermen, as these activities provided part of their living. Instead, what was needed was an alternative source of income whereby people could choose whether they wished to preserve or destroy. We believed, and still do, that the best and most sustainable alternative is to create employment and education opportunities through responsible, conservation-linked tourism.”

An honest assessment

This frank summary of the problem of illegal and destructive fishing, and Wakatobi Resort’s stated commitment to invest time and money in pursuit of a sustainable solution for it, seemed like a good enough reason to seriously consider Wakatobi as a dive destination. No talk of boycotting here! Just a commitment to work with the locals to find better and more sustainable choices.

Then my own selfishness kicked in. Wakatobi Resort offers a charter flight from Bali to the resort’s own private airstrip. This is a flight from an international airport right into the heart of the Coral Triangle, without having to run the gauntlet of multiple domestic flights.

A flight of just over two hours from Bali aboard a dedicated charter flight brings guests to the resort's private airstrip, where they can dive and snorkel on the surrounding reefs that afternoon.

A flight of just over two hours from Bali aboard a charter flight brings guests to the resort’s private airstrip, where they can dive and snorkel on the surrounding reefs that afternoon. Photo by Walt Stearns

The unreliability of many domestic services across Southeast Asia, combined with the increasing hassles and costs associated with traveling with heavy diving and fragile photographic kits, and the lack of authority of the front line counter staff to solve even minor problems for paying customers, have all worked to take the gloss off traveling as a diving photographer. The idea of simply handing off all those logistical issues to someone else and just enjoying the ride was irresistible.

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No-take areas surrounding Wakatobi Resort are recognized and respected by local fishermen, who understand these areas’ roles in replenishing the reefs. Photo by Didi Lotze

Seeing for ourselves

So we went to Wakatobi Resort to see for ourselves. And now we’ve been there, so far, five times, with a couple of those visits extended into three-week stays. We continue to return because they have done what its founder first committed to achieving some 20 years ago. Given its remoteness, the challenges of building and maintaining substantial infrastructure under foreign laws and culture, the difficulties of introducing and sustaining change in the face of generations of entrenched practices, it could not have been an easy task—and very probably, still is not.

Sustainably managed reefs are a joy to dive. For me, they give some insight into the abundance and diversity that once existed.

But it is paying off. Wakatobi Resort’s efforts are creating economic value that is sustaining the reefs. Education and conservation programs are creating new employment and career choices for local people. Around 18 area villages benefit directly from revenues generated by the resort through the provision of direct lease payments, electricity and educational support. Local fishermen have a reliable customer willing to pay premium prices for high-quality, sustainably-harvested fish. No-take areas are generally recognized and respected by those local fishermen, who understand these area’s roles in replenishing the reefs.

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Sustainably-managed reefs provide an insight into the abundance and diversity that once existed throughout the region. Photo by Udo von Dongen

The rewards of sustainability

Sustainably managed reefs are a joy to dive. For me, they give some insight into the abundance and diversity that once existed. Secrets emerge from them dive by dive as the terrain becomes more familiar and the lives of the marine life cycle through time and tide. Clearly, many other divers feel the same way. That’s why Wakatobi Resort is attracting so many of them.

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The reefs surrounding Wakatobi Resort are some of the healthiest and most vibrant on the planet. Photo by Walt Stearns

When they come, they bring with them the revenues that fuel Wakatobi’s economic engine. When they leave, they can take away more than their memories and photographs. We live in a world where the lottery of birth means that some people have to scavenge reef-tops at low tide for food, while others are able to earn the means to dive the reefs on holidays, with camera systems worth more than a local house.

Diving around Wakatobi Resort brings with it the satisfaction that our hard-earned income has yielded not only pleasure and relaxation for us, but also helped support their conservation program. Individually, it might only be a drop in the ocean, but each guest here is part of that program. Drop by drop, it is making a difference.

Wade Hughes is a Member of the Explorers Club and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He has dived in some 30 countries and territories around the world. He and his wife Robyn have visited Wakatobi Resort five times with a sixth visit scheduled in early 2017. They make their photographs freely available to individuals and organizations involved in education, research, and not-for-profit promotion of sustainable conservation. Requests can be sent to wadeandrobynhughes@gmail.com. Follow them on Twitter @WadeSHughes.

Read more by Wade and Robyn here.

Visit us at Wakatobi Resort and see for yourself the benefits of sustainability. Contact us at office@wakatobi.com or complete a quick trip inquiry at wakatobi.com.

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