Coral reefs against the tides of tourism

The delicate balance of nature has to be recalculated with the addition of man-made choices to lessen the environmental, cultural and social degradation of the Maldivian communities.

Without a doubt, Maldives have their greatest asset and stakes underneath its blue waters. Starting from the microscopic beings to the large whales wading in the Maldivian seas, all aquatic creatures are master economists on their own. Much like how the hermit crabs neatly line up to trade off their smaller shells for bigger ones, the marine life give and take from one another keeping a delicate natural balance in check. The peace of the oceans even allow the natives to partake and benefit from their food chains. However, when a third player, ironically now tied to the economic wellbeing of Maldives, enters this delicate chain an asymmetry occurs.

Maldives remained a secret destination for those who deliberately seek it through perils until the very first airport opened up in 19th of October 1960. Tourism began to prosper, reaching greater ascents each passing year. As of 07th May this year alone, 720,361 tourists have already stepped into Maldives and spending by least an average of a week during their stay. Despite, the ascent of these monumental achievements in tourism having not yet plateaued, the steady descent of the underwater rainforest of Maldives is hitting a rock bottom of irreparable consequences. The evidence clearly seen in the deterioration of the Maldivian coral reefs. One of the biggest culprit to this phenomena is the tourism industry.

The Maldives engraves itself, tenderly atop the Indian Ocean without indifference. The landmass of this country can account to barely 300 km2 but its true strength and origin lay what’s underneath its waters. The coral reefs of Maldives account about nearly 30 times its landmass in km2, totalling into 8,900 km2. To put into perspective, the coral reef area of Maldives is nearly the size of the country Cyprus which is 9,251 km². Meanwhile the second largest city in Asia, Delhi of India, measures in around 1,397 km2.

Every inch of these coral reefs, is seen as an opportunity for commercialisation at the expense of the natives that inhabit this country. As more and more tourists vie to visit Maldives before it “sinks”, they bring with them a host of requirements. Private beaches, private surf spots, private islands and ultimately private coral reefs for sightseeing and pleasure. Albeit, the coral reefs are a source of joy to the natives as well, it is also a dire lifeline. Coral reefs are integrally tied to the export of deep sea fish species, such as skipjack tuna and yellow fin tuna. What most people do not realise, is that these delicious tuna has been caught the same way for centuries. With live bait caught from the closest coral reef and then kept alive in fishing vessels till they are thrown at the white foams beneath the thunder of hand held fishing rods.

Moreover, over 2,000 species of reef fish and the entirety of fish species that depend on one another totals into 11,000 in the Maldives. The bait fish inhabit the coral reefs alongside other delicacies.Varieties of snappers, octopi, sea cucumbers, shellfishes and all. Oftentimes, the reef fish bounties are caught and distributed by locals for the locals, to be instantly prepared for the days’ meal.

Regardless to how well the locals are intervened, with the wellbeing and access to their coral reef ecosystems, the expanse of the tourism industry is slowly pushing them aside. With the marine life populations dwindling due to the climate; the addition of tourism activities is encroachment into native spaces. The spaces belonging to reef system wildlife see more visitors than ever before. Harmful chemicals from sunscreens, vandalism accidental and deliberate, and most importantly, tipping the balance of coral reef environments are all demerits from unsustainable tourism practices.

When previously native spaces are commodified for profit, it alters the social and cultural features of the Maldivian identity. The import of frozen meats, such as chicken and beef, become alternatives in the Maldivian diet. Inflated prices for lower nutritional values imported expensively from abroad. The tabletop in each Maldivian household adapts to the new ingredients in order to skate by.

As for the moment, the rise of tourism correlates to the decline of native spaces. The locals depend of coral reefs for culture and traditions, the exporters of deep sea fish depend on the health of coral reefs and the Maldivian identity as a whole, depend on their marine life for their selfhood. The scale of these coral ecosystems are significant for the natives as well the rest of the globe that reap its benefits directly and indirectly. In the end, the delicate balance of nature has to be recalculated with the addition of man-made choices to lessen the environmental, cultural and social degradation of the Maldivian communities.

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