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Diving Sector Could Hold the Key to Advancing UN Sustainable Development Goals

Scripps Oceanography-led paper pinpoints how the diving community can play a critical role in global marine conservation and sustainability

A scuba diver swims next to a school of fish.
A scuba diver swims near a school of fish. Photo: Octavio Aburto

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A new review paper by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego highlights the untapped potential of the diving community in advancing global marine conservation efforts.

Led by researchers in the Aburto Lab at Scripps Oceanography, the review emphasizes that the diving sector — which includes tourism, scientific research, and instruction — is uniquely poised to promote a sustainable and equitable ocean economy, also known as the “blue economy.” It also highlights the sector’s potential to further the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, which are a universal call to action to promote prosperity while protecting the planet.

“Whether they are scuba divers, freedivers, or snorkelers, we think the diving community and broader diving industry hold tremendous potential to make a meaningful impact in conservation and sustainability,” said lead author Matthew Forrest, an alumnus of Scripps Oceanography’s Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. “Our goal with this review is to provide a framework for local-level stakeholders to promote wider engagement by the diving sector, thus advancing UN Sustainable Development Goals and the blue economy.”

The diving sector is a multi-billion dollar industry that plays a pivotal role in the blue economies of many countries and developing island states. However, the authors note, its full potential remains largely underutilized due to a lack of organization and community cohesion. The review, published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science in September 2023, presents a blueprint for uniting and organizing the international diving community, positioning it as a catalyst for local conservation efforts and sustainable development.

The authors identified five key actions, with a focus on advancing UN Goal 14 (SDG 14), “Life Below Water,” which calls for the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources by 2030. Their recommendations are:

  1. Organize the fragmented sector via international associations and federations; 
  2. Recognize usage rights for natural capital equal to extractive activities;
  3. Modernize the sector using technology to improve connectivity and data sharing;
  4. Invest in the sector by engaging private and public funding and subsidizing critical infrastructure to enable equitable access; 
  5. Foster a sense of community by training and supporting local leaders, thereby ensuring more equitable participation by including Indigenous people, women, and youth.
Compilation image of divers underwater and a pie chart to support a scientific review.
The review paper identifies five actions to mobilize the diving sector for a sustainable blue economy and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), focusing on SDG 14. These photos by Octavio Aburto illustrate: (A) Local communities benefit from recognized usage rights, boosting dive tourism. (B) The sector should promote inclusivity, especially among Indigenous people, women, and youth. (C) Investment from NGOs, governments, and private sources is needed for better infrastructure. (D) Communities should protect large marine species to attract tourism. (E) Organized local efforts can improve reef health. (F) Modernizing the sector can attract more engagement in "Life Below Water."

To bridge divisions among various diving entities and organizations, the authors advocate for diving operators to build national and international partnerships in tandem with local governments, ensuring proper representation in the political and policy arenas. Incorporating Indigenous knowledge is another critical step to empower local communities in conservation efforts, and to avoid what is known as “diving colonialism,” where foreign investors dominate the scuba industry in developing nations, often to the detriment of local interests.

Zahidah (Zaidy) Nisa, a review co-author and research affiliate at the Scripps Center for Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation, underscored the importance of inclusion in the diving sector. She highlighted the need for diving education and training that incorporates Indigenous knowledge and aligns with blue economy and ocean policy plans.

“Indigenous communities have a profound understanding of and connection to their marine environment, making them natural stewards of resource management and its sustainable use,” said Nisa, an ocean steward from Fiji with experience teaching scuba diving in regions around the globe.

In Fiji, where Indigenous communities own their marine resources, they serve as the “first line of negotiators for blue jobs,” said Nisa. She noted that inclusivity in the diving sector could help break down barriers in wealth inequality and income inequality while promoting financial inclusion in blue economy jobs.

The authors also noted the need for diverse leadership within the diving sector, stressing the importance of training and engaging women and youth to achieve conservation success. They believe that by fostering inclusivity, a sense of culture can be instilled within the diving community, similar to what has been achieved by societies like fishers, birders, and surfers.

Further improvements to the sector involve increased investments in ocean conservation, targeted subsidies for local communities, and the adoption of modern technology for greater engagement in citizen science initiatives.

Insight gained from previous research

The review builds upon the pioneering research of Scripps marine ecologist Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, a co-author of the new paper. His work in Cabo Pulmo National Park, México, illustrates the diving sector's impact on local communities and marine conservation. After the local community rallied to protect their coral reefs, the area gained National Marine Park status in 1995. Since then, fish biomass within the marine park has surged by over 460%, establishing Cabo Pulmo as a globally recognized ecotourism hub. As of 2017, it had generated an estimated $3.73 million in local benefits.

Further research from the Aburto Lab indicates that Mexico’s diving industry generates $455 to $725 million annually, which is comparable to the returns derived from the country's fisheries. Additionally, a recent study by Fabio Favoretto, a Scripps marine ecologist and co-author of the review, found that Mexico’s Revillagigedo National Park — the largest fully protected Marine Protected Area (MPA) in North America — had no negative effects on the behavior and productivity of the Mexican industrial fishing fleet. These findings add to the growing evidence that well-designed MPAs can benefit marine ecosystems and the fisheries they support.

These insights have led to calls for global partnerships among the diving sector, local communities, and governments to sustainably manage marine resources. The authors anticipate that sustainable diving tourism, or ecotourism, and improvements to the sector offer an underexplored solution to address these pressing needs. In the face of global threats like climate change, pollution, and overfishing, there is a growing need for collective efforts to achieve SDG 14 and other conservation initiatives.

“By covering the needs of the diving industry in developing nations, our review highlights the urgent need for systemic changes and actions to modernize the diving workforce across all sectors in order to meet the globally agreed mandate to save the oceans,” said Nisa.

Work on the review manuscript was funded by grants to Aburto-Oropeza from National Geographic Pristine Seas and Oceans 5. Aburto-Oropeza also captured images under National Geographic grant #NGS-53092S-18.

A diver underwater near a reef.
Scientific diver Paula Sternberg Rodríguez. Photo: Octavio Aburto
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