How has tourism changed local perceptions of the ocean?

Utila’s first dive shop opened in 1991 and twenty years later there are over 10 dive shops and resorts. The growth of this dive industry and the low price of an open water course has lured in many budget travelers to the Caribbean island. As tourism increases on the 11km long island it leads to an influx of mainland Hondurans coming to Utila along with dive professionals from around the globe for work, which has led to the population increasing exponentially.


Tourism has its positives and negatives for the island but I wanted to look into how it has changed the opinions of Utilians as they witnessed this change firsthand. I spoke to a few locals who work at the Bay Island College of Diving (BICD) and the Utila Lodge ranging in age from 20 to 50 and their answers were as follows:


Albert is a captain at BICD and the increase in tourism has changed his opinion of the ocean. He now realises the importance of keeping marine animals alive rather than fishing them for food. He used to catch and eat turtles every other month with the meat lasting a couple of weeks for his family. He hasn’t eaten turtle for fifteen years. Albert also used to fish regularly for lobster, conch, crab and other fish. He now cannot remember the last time he ate lobster. This benefits the reef and the tourists who are more satisfied after seeing an abundance of marine life. Having a job in tourism also makes Albert more money and is more rewarding than the jobs he used to have, for example working on freight ships. If he got offered another job today he wouldn’t take it.


Another boat captain, Foster, has realised since tourism has become a big part of Utila the amount of garbage in the ocean has reduced. If the aesthetics of the ocean were gone then so would the tourists.


John, a dive instructor at BICD is only 20 and is already doing his PADI Staff Instructor qualification. He became a diver as the income it brings him is a lot better than a job he would have on the island if tourism wasn’t so big. Tourism has changed his life and career.


Queen Anne (or Queenie as everyone calls her) has been working at the lodge for over ten years. She has noticed that as more people have come to the island everything is being destroyed. She mentioned that when she was growing up here they used to have everything in abundance because they took care of things in the ocean. For example, when they caught a female lobster and saw she had eggs, they would put her back. Now this isn’t the case as fishermen are taking anything they catch regardless of size or reproductive stage and people do not care anymore. This is an indirect consequence of tourism as it isn’t the tourists but some of the community from the mainland who have different beliefs and cultures than those from the Bay Islands.


Another dive instructor at BICD, Donna, says that she has become more aware of ocean topics since becoming a diver. For instance she had no idea about overfishing and has now noticed the decreased amount of reef fish on dive sites. Donna also said that the tourism has changed Utila’s culture and people, especially her, as she is more open minded to what is going on in Utila. She has noticed that tourism is just a money making business and people aren’t taking care of the reef.


These are just five peoples’ accounts of tourism on Utila and their stories all differ. Although most are more conscientious about the ocean there are still those who continue to fish as they did decades ago, catching turtles, which are endangered, and other species which have a minimum take size. Some continue to take what they want without realising that the species are what bring tourists to Utila. This is just an example of one island in the Caribbean, but this is happening worldwide, and hopefully one day we will all realise the importance of the ocean. If we nurture the environment it will nurture us.


Author Lisa D’Silva 2015, photocredit Justin Enns.

Ocean Motion

The polar regions are important drivers of the world’s climate. Ocean currents redistribute heat around the world via thermohaline circulation (also called the Global Ocean Conveyor). One reason water in the Global Ocean Conveyor circulates is because of differences in water density. Differences in temperature and salinity are the cause of changes to water density. The colder the water the denser it becomes. Same with salt, the saltier the water the denser it becomes.

The greater the density difference between separate layers in the water column, the greater the mixing and circulation. Water heated near the equator travels at the surface towards the poles where it becomes cooler. As the water cools, it becomes denser and sinks into the deep ocean, driving the deep ocean currents. When salt water freezes the salt is excluded. When water freezes at the poles the surrounding water becomes saltier and sinks, this also contributes to ocean circulation.

Melting of polar ice could cause dramatic changes to the Global Ocean Conveyor. As the earth continues to warm and arctic ice melts, freshwater is released from melting ice, making seawater at high latitudes less salty, therefore less dense. The less dense water will not be able to sink and circulate through the deep ocean as it currently does. Therefore this melting of arctic ice has the potential to disrupt and slow the Global Ocean Conveyor. The warmth from the warm surface currents carried away from the tropics is lost to the atmosphere.  The slowing of this ocean circulation could lead to a cooling in places where this warmth is currently lost into the atmosphere.

So why does this matter for the small island of Utila? When fresh water flows into the sea it changes ocean currents, which changes living conditions for marine organisms. These changes will be noticed everywhere around the world. Many marine animals depend on these currents for migration. They depend on these currents to find food and for breeding purposes. A change in ocean currents could change the distribution of phytoplankton, which would change migration patterns of larger organisms that depend on such distributions. A change in heat distribution could cause problems as well. The warmer less nutrient dense water will stay concentrated in the tropics, which will cause further changes to the marine organisms found here.

The Importance of Biodiversity

Late last year the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released a report via its biennial Living Planet Report for the year 2014. The results of the science based study were quite sobering. The Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures trends for more than 10,000 representative populations of fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, declined by 52% between the years of 1970 and 2010. More than half of Earth’s biodiversity lost within the relatively minuscule time frame of 40 years. How did this happen? What are some of the contributing factors responsible for this staggering decline in biodiversity? Furthermore, why is it so crucial that we put forth our best efforts to conserve as much of it as we possibly can?


So, just what exactly is meant by the term biodiversity? The term biodiversity is relatively new and is thought to have first been coined by W.G. Rosen as a contraction for “biological diversity” back in 1985 and it first appeared in a 1988 publication by sociobiologist E.O. Wilson. Simply stated, biodiversity is the variety of all the different forms of life found on Earth.


There are many factors that influence changes in biodiversity. These factors, which can be either direct or indirect, are referred to as drivers. Some of the main drivers responsible for this loss of biodiversity are climate change, overexploitation of species, introduction of invasive species, habitat destruction as a result of urban sprawl as well as for the purposes of agriculture in order to meet the demands of an ever increasing human population, and pollution just to name a few.


So why is maintaining biodiversity through the conservation of species so important?


Well, for starters, ecosystem productivity is higher when more biologically diverse. More biologically diverse ecosystems can also prevent and rebound from natural or man made disasters more readily than those systems that are less diverse. The human population depends on them for resources such as food, shelter and medicine. In some areas of the world the economy is based largely upon ecotourism and if those avenues of income were to suddenly evaporate due to losses of biological diversity those economies in all likelihood would go belly up. History is also replete with examples of how the discovery and subsequent study of organisms have helped advance the fields of science, engineering, and medicine.


Whether you view a species as having an “Intrinsic or inherent value” (something having value in and of itself) or you view it as having an “instrumental or utilitarian value” (the value something has as a means to another’s end), one thing is for certain and that is that the value in having rich biological diversity is immeasurable. After all, who wants to live in a biologically depauperate world anyway? I know I most certainly do not.


Author: Phillip Rose 2015. Photocredit:

Conservation and Aesthetics

Which species deserves to be conserved? One could argue that all animals facing extinction should be saved, as each play an important role in the entirety of the ecosystem. However, as the scientist David Stokes recently wrote in the Journal of Human Ecology, ‘human preferences will increasingly determine many species’ prospects for survival‘.


Humans are not always able to make an emotional connection with a species, increasing the possibility of that particular species being neglected. An animal’s aesthetic appeal is what generates greater interest to make it desirable to be saved. The public is able to connect with some iconic animals by finding them majestic and powerful like the polar bear, cute and fluffy like the panda bear, or cool and chill like the sea turtle. Some species have an influential visual or symbolic charisma, garnering more support from the public to further conserve them.


There have been studies exploring which visual characteristics of certain species humans prefer, and how this affects the attitudes towards its conservation. One particular study focused on evaluating which parrot species were found in captivity. The study found that there was a ‘positive association between perceived beauty and the size of the worldwide zoo population‘. Other variables analysed included the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listing, which was shown to be an insignificant variable. The study concluded that the conservation status of the particular parrot species was not the determining factor; instead it was the parrot’s aesthetic appeal.


So if a species is less desirable in the eye of the general public, how do we change the species’ future outlook? There have been recent outreach initiatives bringing awareness to the neglect of less appealing animals by conservation efforts. Will educating the public on the importance of conserving keystone species, generate a greater interest in those species previously deemed ‘unappealing’?


Author: Leah Schwartzentruber 2015.