Diving to decline: investigating the economic and social impacts of ocean acidification on the dive tourism industry

Diver surrounded by fish while diving

Science and industry working together to save reefs from being loved to death

Tens of thousands of experienced and novice divers and snorkelers from around the globe flock to experience the splendour of the underwater world at prime locations in Vietnam, Malaysia, Australia and the Indonesian archipelago.

Marine tourism has become an economic livelihood which offers employment and broader social opportunities within these and other coastal communities across the Asia-Pacific.

But, as tourism expert Dr Kay Dimmock warns, for marine tourism to be successful there is a need for high-quality marine resources.

"Dive tourism is an important source of income for South-East Asia, but its future depends on the effective management of healthy coral reefs," says Dr Dimmock, Senior Lecturer in tourism at Southern Cross University.

"We're aiming to provide practical recommendations to the industry for adaptive management and to help mitigate the impacts of scuba diving and snorkelling on increasingly fragile coral ecosystems."

Ocean acidification and a decline in coral reef health will impact coastal communities in the Asia-Pacific region. Addressing the social and environmental challenges is the aim of an international multidisciplinary collaboration now underway. Dr Dimmock is one of a group of researchers from Southern Cross University working with international colleagues and the University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre.

“The overall research project design includes environmental and social science research,” Dr Dimmock says. “A multi-national and multi-disciplinary approach has been taken to identify knowledge, assess vulnerabilities and develop tools focused on future risk reduction. Our project will draw on expertise in coral biology, biogeochemistry, ocean acidification, marine tourism, marine management and environmental economics.”

Ocean acidification is a complex scientific issue caused by change in ocean chemistry from increasing levels of carbon dioxide entering the ocean. Changes in ocean chemistry will play out across marine environments including the Asia-Pacific and have dramatic impacts for communities.

At present, there is little evidence on the awareness and impact being experienced within communities or steps being taken to generate broader discussion on the subject.

“Our aim is to work with the recreational SCUBA diving industry as our point of focus,” said Dr Dimmock. “The Asia-Pacific region hosts a vibrant SCUBA diving industry with dive tourism having grown rapidly over recent decades.

“From a social science perspective, we are interested in what stakeholders understand to be ocean acidification, whether they consider it is of concern for them if any steps are taken with regard to ocean acidification in delivering dive tourism, and what is communicated through their organisation from the operator to staff and on to dive tourists. The study will consider the perspectives of the three groups across each international location -- operator, divemaster and divers -- to understand what information is being communicated as part of the dive tourism process. The research and findings will complement the marine science research which will examine coral reef health in each of the international locations as well.”

The Southern Cross University Gold Coast campus hosted a three-day workshop in November 2019 to mark the beginning of the international collaboration. Participants from each project country presented their research focus and contribution.

“The workshop was an excellent opportunity to meet face to face and explore the detail of the study, develop a projected timeline and consolidate the overall focus of the project,” says Dr Dimmock.

The project has a two-year timeline from the start of 2020.