The Aruba Reef Care Project celebrates 10 years of progress
Coral reefs are among the Earth's most treasured ecosystems, upon which countless species depend for survival. In addition to the flora and fauna that live on and among the reef structures, the denizens of sandy beaches and calm lagoons could not survive without healthy reefs standing sentinel offshore. Even the well-being of sea grass beds and mangroves is intimately linked with that of coral reefs.
Yet the reefs are fragile. High levels of phosphorus and nitrates in sewage cause algae blooms that suffocate coral. Runoff and erosion reduce salinity and increase sediment, which clogs the corals' mouths and tentacles, preventing feeding and breathing. Anchor damage, groundings, coral mining and overfishing are additional stressors.
Such reef stress is a major concern in the Caribbean, where coral reefs are often the mainstay of local island economies fisheries depend on them, as do dive operators and other tourism-related businesses. Flourishing, colorful reefs and their stunning biodiversity are a major draw for divers, snorkelers and other ecominded visitors from around the world.
That's why the Aruba Tourism Authority launched the Aruba Reef Care Project, known originally as the Aruba Underwater Reef Cleanup, in 1994. Ecotourism project manager Castro Perez wanted to raise awareness of the island's precious marine environment and educate the community about the importance of protecting it. In the cleanup's first year, Perez and Byron Boekhoudt of the Department of Agriculture, Husbandry and Fisheries collected two tons of litter from dive and beach sites along Aruba's leeward coast.
In 1995, the cleanup was accompanied by a marine-life symposium that attracted a wide range of organizations and community members. The effort expanded yet again in 1996, when approximately 600 volunteers collected 4,400 pounds of litter.
Over the years, the project has made significant progress. Local cooperation is increasing, especially with the creation of the Aruba Watersports Association. In 1996, the AWA joined the Department of Agriculture, Husbandry and Fisheries in creating an islandwide mooring system. Then the Fisheries Center Aruba Foundation branched off in 1997 island fishermen and the department are now working together to address overharvesting.
Tico Croes, Aruba's minister of tourism and economic affairs, presented a special award to Castro Perez in 1997 for the environmental awareness his project has created. In 1998, the project received international recognition during the Caribbean Tourism Conference in Jamaica: an honorable mention for the Islands Magazine Ecotourism Award.
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Aruba Reef Care Project remains dedicated to community education and the establishment of its own marine-
management system (similar to that in Bonaire). Other goals include expanding the existing educational presentations to reach all 9,000 primary and secondary school students, and increasing cooperation to effectively lobby for new marine-protection laws, such as requiring a higher level of sewage treatment.
Sponsored by the Aruba Tourism Authority, the island's dive operators and the Aruba Hotel and Tourism Association, the 10th annual Aruba Reef Care Project will take place July 5 and 6. Local dive operators, water-sports companies, schools, hotel teams, social organizations, volunteers and visitors will once again clean up the island's beaches, dive sites and coral reefs, taking important steps to safeguard these natural resources for future generations.