Worth more alive

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To mark the International Year of the Reef, we caught up with inspiring Bajan marine biologist André Miller to find out how we can all help save the Caribbean’s precious seas

“Can I remember the first time I really felt in love with the water? Maybe when the doctor slapped me… I’m blessed to have grown up in Barbados and Grenada, and was always near the beach. I was always bringing home crabs, urchins and fish, and trying to name them. My first mask and snorkel changed my life. I love the ocean: the total freedom and being surrounded by wild creatures. My first job was in a dive shop, and while I was at high school I started volunteering at a marine science lab. Then it was only natural to go on to study marine biology. And I am still learning.”

Turning tides
André Miller – marine biologist, businessman and ocean ambassador – is passionate about the sea. Specifically, the waters around the Caribbean which, he says, have suffered enormously during his lifetime. The reefs he so loved as a boy have been drastically depleted. “Some estimates say we have lost over 90% of our reef fish,” André notes. But now he’s on a mission to stop the decline and turn around reef health.

André works on coral restoration and transplantation projects on Barbados. At the Coral Lab, he is part of a team trying to grow fragments of corals, rehabilitate them, transplant them out onto the reef and then monitor their development.

“We are now setting up coral nurseries in many of the Caribbean islands, and so far it’s very encouraging,” says André. “The big storms that have affected our islands also damaged a lot of coral. We move the damaged coral fragments to nurseries in protected areas, then transplant the corals back out to the reef 12 months later. We can plant hundreds of rare coral species, and make a huge difference. We are seeing positive results.”

Attitudes to the Caribbean’s reefs are improving, too. “Awareness is higher now – but it took us losing lots of fish and coral due to overfishing for that to happen,” says André. “Now we are seeing some positive changes, especially with the younger generation.”

Spreading the word
André is also a qualified PADI diving instructor and owner of two dive shops. “We initially set up Barbados Blue and Eco Dive Grenada to get more locals in the water,” he says. “So many local people don’t know how lucky they are to be surrounded by corals and thousands of fish. Now we have taken that message to thousands of divers.”

The dive shops are environmentally conscious operations. Their boats run on four-stroke low-emission engines, which are serviced regularly to maintain efficiency; they use permanent moorings as opposed to dropping anchor; their sunscreen and soap are biodegradable; their plastics are recycled.

In recognition of his work, André has been named a PADI AmbassaDiver for Conservation. “From Fiji to Barbados, we are saving one reef at a time,” he says.

“We are also really pushing the PADI Coral First Aid course, which teaches hoteliers, guests and locals how to set up nurseries. We are teaching it throughout the Caribbean. I think all divers have a responsibility to tell people what is going on under the water, as we get to see the changes on the reefs first.”

And anyone can be a diver. “You don’t need to be a certain weight, fitness or age – diving is for everyone!” André insists. “At Barbados Blue and Grenada Eco Dive, we offer free pool sessions so anyone can experience breathing underwater. The Caribbean is such a good place to learn – our reefs are very close to shore, so there’s no need for long boat rides, and we have 365 days a year of warm and clear water!”

Turtle power
One particularly big concern for André is the Caribbean’s sea turtle populations. “Humans are the biggest threat to these critically endangered animals,” he says. “They often get caught in fishing gear – entangled in nets, trapped in fish pots or caught on hooks.” They’re also threatened by loss of habitat and coastal developments.

“I would like to see a stop to the hunting of turtles, and for anyone to refuse turtle meat if offered,” says André. “I would also like to see fewer fishing nets used, and the creation of more protected marine areas where human activities are limited, so that sea turtles are able to feed and migrate freely.”

This isn’t just important for the turtles – it’s important for the economy, too. “A Bellairs Research Institute and Barbados Blue study showed that a healthy turtle is worth US$1.7 million every year, based on the numbers of turtle tours in Barbados,” says André, who sees this value first-hand. “At the moment we can essentially guarantee that you will see turtles on our daily morning dives in Barbados. Some turtles even seem to recognise us and follow our divers. We don’t feed them while we dive, but they seem to somehow know we are their friends.”

Essential ecosystem
It’s not just the turtles that draw tourists. The whole underwater ecosystem is vital to the region. “If fish numbers plummet, this means less fish to feed us and less revenue from guests,” says André. “More importantly, corals start to die if we don’t have healthy reef populations. If we have no coral reefs, then the beaches start to go. No beaches means a less attractive tourism product. You feeling me?”

André knows exactly what he would do if he were in charge: “If I were president for the day, I would prohibit 90% of plastic products, create more protected areas and prevent fishing on 30% of all Caribbean reefs,” he says. “This would increase the amount of fish caught outside protected areas in just a few years. Also, by improving reef health we’d attract more visitors, protect our beaches from erosion, and the medical field would continue to find new cures on our coral reefs – a win-win situation.”

The theory, he reckons, is simple: “You can see the same fish every day for years, and each day locals are making money from them as people pay to snorkel or dive. Or you can kill all the fish in one day, make a quick buck, but then have none for years – then no one’s making any money. This is basic. The Caribbean can make more if it protects more.”

André’s Dive 5
• Favourite post-dive food? Lionfish – guilt-free food! It is an invasive species and they should be eaten
• Favourite dive site? Carlisle Bay, Barbados – five shallow shipwrecks on one dive
• Site you most want to dive? I want to dive all the islands in the Grenadines
• Favourite species to spot? Hawksbill turtle and reef sharks
• Favourite tunes for the dive boat? Bob Marley – he was singing about protecting creation before anyone realised what he meant

More info
Barbados Blue offers a range of ecologically sustainable diving, snorkelling and watersports activities, and donates to Project AWARE. Barbados Blue is based at the Hilton Hotel, Needham’s Point, Pebbles Beach, Carlisle Bay, St Michael (+1 246 434 5764; www.divebarbadosblue.com)

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