As coral reefs and marine resources are increasingly threatened worldwide, innovative solutions are needed to protect them. How can we effectively create economic incentives and market competition to stimulate marine conservation? Bastiaan Vermonden, a graduate in Marine Resource Management from Wageningen University, recently shared with ProjectBlueHope.com his novel concept for incentivizing improvements in marine life conservation.
Completing his Master’s thesis on the topic of divers willingness to pay to protect coral reefs around Hon Mun Island, Vietnam, Bastiaan has since launched the website, DiveSelector.com. The site collects standardized surveys from scuba divers around the world regarding the marine life they’ve encountered while diving. Interactive maps of the results then allow scuba enthusiasts to choose dive destinations with the highest biodiversity and best marine life, providing incentive for businesses and governments to protect their local marine resources.
In the following interview, Bastiaan shares with Project Blue Hope more about DiveSelector.com.
PBH: What was the impetus for creating Dive Selector?
Bastiaan: I hope that with DiveSelector.com every diver can easily stimulate marine conservation simply by deciding to go diving at locations with the most marine life.
The idea behind DiveSelector.com began with the question: Why doesn’t the tourism industry invest more in marine life conservation and hold politicians accountable when they fail to provide sufficient resources for marine life protection? This is a relevant question to ask, especially considering that the annual value of just coral reefs for tourism and recreation has been estimated to be up to $9.6 billion yet only 0.08% of the world’s oceans are truly protected in no take marine parks, those which ban all forms of fishing (source).
PBH: What do you believe is the driving force behind limited implementation of marine protected areas worldwide?
Bastiaan: well I believe there are many reasons but one important reason I think is that there is a basic economic failure. What we expect in a proper economic market is that the demand and price for a good are related to the quality of that good. To use sports cars as an example, we would expect to pay more for a sports car that goes accelerates from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour in 5 seconds than for a car that takes 30 seconds.
When we compare diving destinations however, we almost never are provided with quantified information with which to compare dive locations. We rely on anecdotal information such as “divers see sharks here occasionally” or “divers see sharks here regularly.” Based on these two choices, could you with confidence decide which of those two destinations you would prefer for seeing sharks? What are the differences between “occasional” and “regular” marine life sightings?
In an anecdotal information system, a scuba diver has to take a chance. If a diver has to choose between two destinations without good data on what to expect in terms of marine biodiversity, they have a 50: 50 chance of picking either the destination with the lowest or the highest abundance of marine life. And the differences between sites can potentially be very large.
PBH: Why is this bad news for marine conservation?
Bastiaan: Well, let’s imagine a marine park that wants to start a conservation initiative to increase the abundance of sharks and needs the tourism industry to contribute financially. Lacking a strong link between diver demand and shark abundance, why would the tourism sector pay?
In this situation, any costs associated with implementing conservation would only hurt the tourism industry’s overall profits. And even worse, any necessary price increases to fund the conservation activities would actually make that destination more expensive to visit and therefore less competitive on the international tourism market. As long as divers are choosing destinations based largely on chance and strictly anecdotal information, the tourism sector has minimal to no incentive to invest in marine conservation.
Bastiaan: Well, if divers can accurately compare diving destinations, they would consequently choose the sites with the highest abundances of marine wildlife because that is what they want to see (ie. the highest DiveSelector.com rating). So in this situation wildlife conservation is a sound business proposition whenever the costs of increasing or maintaining the populations of wildlife is lower than the additional income from better paying or higher numbers of divers.
PBH: Explain how you are bringing your conservation theories into practice with Diveselector.com.
Bastiaan: Right, so, with the theory that comparing diving destinations could incentivize better marine life conservation, it is now necessary to put theory into practice.
At DiveSelector.com, a standardized survey for divers and statistical analyses makes it possible to collect lots of data and then create interactive comparison maps of dive destinations around the world. From the results of the scuba diver surveys, dive sites are given ratings, informing other divers how likely they are to encounter large fish, sea turtles, rays, sharks, and seahorses at dive sites worldwide. And the maps visually allow for an easy and fast overview of the differences between worldwide dive locations.
PBH: How do you hope Dive Selector will create competition for marine stewardship?
Bastiaan: The most important reason for creating Dive Selector was not simply to correct a market failure, but to try to harness one of man’s greatest motivators – competition! It was the competition of the cold war that put a man on the moon; it is market competition that brings us faster cheaper computers and gadgets every year; it is competition that motivates man to advance.
I hope that by comparing destinations we will give the tourism sector the tools necessary to compete with one another – like a stopwatch for runners or scores in football.
PBH: So fundamentally you are hoping to motivate marine conservation?
Bastiaan: Yes, what I truly hope is that this initiative will stimulate local businesses, marine park managers, government officials and individuals to strive for high DiveSelector.com ratings – indicating high abundances of marine life. In turn, their marine conservation efforts would be rewarded by increased profitable tourism. While not all parties might be equally interested in environmental protection, most politicians, businesses, and individuals are interested in higher incomes, profits and job opportunities.
PBH: How can people contribute to protecting marine life using DiveSelector.com?
Bastiaan: In order for this project to succeed, I require a significant amount of help from divers all around the world. But, importantly, the amount of effort required from each individual diver is small.
There are essentially three ways people can help:
1) Please fill out a survey on the site for the locations you’ve been diving and help calculate dive destination ratings.
2) Use Dive Selector when deciding on your next dive destination, so that your choice will incentivize marine stewardship.
3) Inform other divers about Dive Selector to grow this venture. You can support Dive Selector’s efforts at our Facebook Fan Page as well.
Marketing marine conservation as both an environmentally-conscious and economically-sound practice, Dive Selector is just one of a growing number of initiatives brainstorming win-win ocean solutions and fostering hope for the future.
Christine Beggs is the founder of Project Blue Hope, a site dedicated to spreading her wish for a “Future of Blue.” Currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Marine Conservation, Christine is passionate about communicating ocean sciences.