Living Reefs

Published July 31, 2019 in CONSERVATION

by Wade Hughes, FRGS

When shark-fin soup was served at a Brunei conference on ocean conservation, it created quite a stir. When the moderator called to boycott the soup, I was the only person who voted against it. As I was a panelist who had just spoken on whale conservation, there was a strong reaction from the audience. Once things cooled down, I was asked to explain. I suggested that “Should we boycott shark-fin soup?” was the wrong question.

To be clear: shark-finning is a devastating blight on the oceans, and I have no sympathy for people who buy shark fin soup. But how do you stop shark-finning? There’s no easy answer. Regulations often prove difficult or impossible to enforce, and changing behaviors is a long, slow process that must extend from customers through irresponsible restaurants, governments, and middlemen on down to the villages of some of the world’s poorest fishermen.

Wakatobi’s House Reef comprises some of the region’s healthiest and prolific coral reef and seagrass meadows.

Wakatobi’s House Reef comprises some of the region’s healthiest and most prolific coral reef and seagrass meadows. Photo by Didi Lotze

It’s easy for a comfortable and affluent audience to vote to boycott soup, and in so doing take away the livelihoods of fishermen who depend on this vile market to feed their families. But unless the vote comes with a commitment to creating meaningful alternatives for these fishermen, it is meaningless. And so, I suggested that a better question might be: “Who will help find an alternative for the fishermen paid to kill sharks?” Because for conservation to be sustainable, it has to be founded on sustainable economics.

Sustainably-managed reefs, such as those surrounding Wakatobi Resort, provide insight into the abundance and diversity that once existed throughout the entire region. Photo by Wade Hughes

Sustainably-managed reefs, such as those surrounding Wakatobi Resort, provide insight into the abundance and diversity that once existed throughout the entire region. Photo by Wade Hughes

A credible choice

A couple of years after that incident, I was searching for a diving destination somewhere within the Coral Triangle. The resorts all looked 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.

Then, some text on the on Wakatobi website caught my attention. It stated “Prior to the (conservation) program, the locals were largely dependent on working with foreign, illegal fishing boats to make a living. 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.

“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.”

No-take areas encompassing some 20 kilometers of reef surrounding the resort are recognized and respected by local fishermen, who understand these area's roles in replenishing the reefs.

No-take areas encompassing some 20 kilometers of coral reef surrounding the resort are recognized and respected by local fishermen, who understand these area’s roles in replenishing the reefs. Photo by Didi Lotze

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 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.

In addition, I discovered that 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. Add to that the numerous guest reviews praising the service, food, and surroundings, and Wakatobi jumped to the top of the list.

Wakatobi is easy to access via direct 2.5 hour charter flights from Bali to the resort’s own private airstrip. Photo by Wakatobi Resort

Wakatobi is easy to access via direct 2.5 hour charter flights from Bali to the resort’s own private airstrip. Photo by Wakatobi Resort

Seeing for ourselves

We went to Wakatobi Resort to see for ourselves. We saw, liked it enough to come back, and have now been nine times so far, with a couple of those visits extended into three-week stays. We continue to return because they have done what its founder, Lorenz Mäder, first committed to achieving over 20 years ago by establishing the Collaborative Reef Conservation Program. 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, creating and operating this resort could not have been an easy task.

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.

For guests, the rewards of the conservation program are found below the water. The reefs within Wakatobi's marine preserve have been spared the degradation that plagues other regions, and are instead thriving and in even better condition than when the program was founded.

The reefs within Wakatobi’s marine preserve have been spared the degradation that plagues other regions, and are instead thriving and in even better condition than when the program was founded. Photo by Wakatobi Resort

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 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.

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 at Wakatobi is part of their conservation initiatives. Drop by drop, it is making a difference.

More about Wakatobi’s Collaborative Reef Conservation Program here >

Wade and Robyn Hughes have visited Wakatobi nine times. Wade has logged more than 400 photographic dives on Wakatobi’s reefs while Robyn has snorkeled extensively and, when not at sea, has focused her lens on local life and the environment.

Wade and Robyn Hughes have visited Wakatobi nine times. Wade has logged more than 400 dives on Wakatobi’s reefs while Robyn has snorkeled extensively and, when not at sea, has focused her lens on local life and the environment. Photo by Wakatobi Resort

Wade Hughes is a Member of the Explorers Club, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and a multi-award-winning photographer. He has dived extensively around the world from the Arctic Circle and the Southern Ocean to the equatorial tropics. His wife, Robyn, is an accomplished diver and award-winning photographer who began her international travels as a teenager. She took up writing and photography after a career in banking, and, with Wade, has since visited more than 50 countries.

The Hughes latest work Wakatobi: Conservation. In Depth. was created to document the success of Wakatobi Resort’s conservation programs. The story is told through more than 200 pages of photographs created over the course of several years. Wakatobi: Conservation. In Depth. can be previewed in its entirety by clicking on this link, then selecting the Preview tab. The full book has been opened for free of charge viewing, and also for purchase.

Email the Hughes at wadeandrobynhughes@gmail.com. Follow them on Twitter @WadeSHughes.  More from Wade and Robyn here.

Visit us at Wakatobi Resort and see for yourself Wakatobi’s contribution to change. Contact us at office@wakatobi.com or complete a quick trip inquiry at wakatobi.com.

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