Reef-World’s Green Fins initiative is going through impressive global growth (as of September, the UN Environment programme is now active in 11 countries and counting!). Each active country has its own individual circumstances and may face challenges unique to its local area. Yet, all Green Fins destinations are united in their commitment to protect its coral reefs by promoting environmental best practice for diving and snorkelling. What’s more, we’re all in this together and, by learning from each other, everyone involved in Green Fins can find better and more effective ways of improving their sustainability.

Next, in our journey around the Green Fins world, we pay a visit to the Philippines to learn how the country is using the initiative to reduce negative environmental impacts on coral reefs as well as managing and preventing potential overtourism. 

The Philippines is a popular diving destination for many thousands of divers due to its 7,000+ islands and numerous coral reef systems. According to the Republic of the Philippines Department of Trade and Industry, 7.1 million international tourists visited the Philippines in 2018. An ever-growing number of travellers now demand environmentally friendly practices from their dive or snorkel operator and visitors to the Philippines are no exception. Boracay’s 2018 closure, due to overtourism, demonstrates that maintaining environmental best practice is more important than ever.

For this reason, Green Fins has added huge value to the country’s marine tourism industry since its inaugural implementation in Puerto Galera and Mabini in 2010. Green Fins Philippines is implemented by the Coastal and Marine Division (CMD) and regional offices under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB) with support from NGOs including Batangas Community Divers, The El Nido Foundation and Marine Conservation Philippines.

In the Philippines, Green Fins been integrated into different parts of the institutional structure to help the government mitigate tourism threats. The Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB) is interested in Green Fins for its value in coral reef protection. However, an alternative approach allows governments to use the programme as a tool to manage tourism more specifically. For example, Green Fins was previously under the Environment Management Bureau (EMB), who shared responsibility with the Philippine Commission on Sports Scuba Diving (PCSSD). The EMB and PCSSD particularly valued the way the initiative’s environmental standards complemented PCSSD’s existing safety guidelines.

Reef-World, the international coordinator of Green Fins, helps develop the capacity of the Green Fins national teams and support them in their strategic implementation of the initiative across their countries. Over the years, the marine conservation charity has helped organise and facilitate numerous training sessions to build the knowledge and ability of Green Fins Assessors and Coordinators, as well as supporting the development of the government institutional structure needed to run the initiative across the archipelago. With Green Fins active in so many sites around the country, these training sessions help the national team learn how to approach and mitigate the varied range of threats faced in different areas.

From its initial roots in Puerto Galera and Anilao, Green Fins expanded to Moalboal and Mactan in 2011 followed by Malapascua and El Nido’s dive and snorkel operators in 2012. The Green Fins Ambassador programme also first launched in the country in 2012. These carefully selected dive guides were given additional training in marine biology and ecology, environmental dive briefings and the correction of damaging guest behaviour underwater. The training put them in the prime position to champion sustainable diving practices among their peers and to champion local environmental activities in their communities.

In 2013, Moalboal’s very first dive guide accreditation seminar took place. Following a local ordinance, all dive guides were required to attend in order to be licensed to guide in the Municipal waters of Moalboal and the training included how guides could act as a positive role model for guests by following Green Fins guidelines.

2014 saw the Ambassador programme gaining momentum with new Ambassadors being appointed in Malapascua. In the same year, Malapascua became the first Green Fins location to achieve 100% membership, with all 18 dive centres on the island at the time signed up to the programme. Malapascua has been a great success story for Green Fins: since the initiative came to the island on 2012, the industry has demonstrated its passion and commitment to improving environmental best practice, reflected in negative impacts to its precious coral reefs being reduced each year. The commitment to protecting Malapascua's reefs was also reflected in a renewed spirit of collaboration between many groups of stakeholders in the creation of the Malapascua Marine Protection Fund (MMPF). This movement collected a small donation from each person diving with Malapascua’s thresher sharks and was put towards mooring buoy programmes and patrols on Monad Shoal to protect the area from illegal fishing. The group eventually disbanded when responsibility for protection was taken over by the LGU, as was always the aim.

“One thing that stands out to me is how Green Fins has given a platform for issues to be raised without it being seen as one business telling others what to do; when everyone feels they are working towards the same goals set by a separate body it works better!” says Matt Reed, Owner at Evolution Dive Resort (Philippines), which has been a Green Fins Top 10 Member since 2014.  

Other interventions were developed alongside the progress of Green Fins. For example, in Puerto Galera, supporters of Green Fins came together with local government to halt a mooring buoy scheme that would have destroyed the only place in Puerto Galera where customers can see mandarin fish perform their nightly mating ritual; a great illustration of how a small but passionate community can work together to protect the environment they care so much about. Similarly, the LGU implemented caps to reduce the number of divers per day at local hotspot Balicasag Island as a way of minimising reef damage and creating a more sustainable diving industry.

2015 saw Panglao welcomed to the Green Fins fold. Momentum didn’t stop in 2016 when Reef-World launched the first Green Fins Snorkel Assessor Training in El Nido with the support of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), El Nido Local Government Unit, El Nido - Taytay Protected Area Office and not least, The El Nido Foundation. This training built on existing dive assessment capacity in the region to reach the rapidly growing island-hopping tour industry. The Green Fins programme also became available to dive operators in Dauin; an area of Negros Oriental known for its muck diving. The Reef-World Foundation also made great strides in understanding how to best communicate through language (and alphabet!) barriers and creating dedicated materials to appeal to tourists from the Chinese, Korean and Japanese markets.

By the end of 2016, the DENR launched its Coastal and Marine Ecosystems Management Program (CMEMP), allowing them to pour resources into staff capacity building for improved management of marine and coastal resources. They integrated Green Fins into their outreach programme and formalised the programme nationally through the Technical Bulletin No. 2017-13. This provided the legal instrument and structure for regional and provincial governments across the country to begin implementing the international Green Fins environmental standards. This represented a significant milestone for DENR and Reef-World as it allows Green Fins to be rolled out on a national level.

Thanks to government collaboration with airports and other tourism sector partners, Green Fins posters are now also present in high traffic airports and ports, such as Puerto Princesa and Dumaguete, to educate tourists about what they should and shouldn’t do when diving or snorkelling on coral reefs.

As Reef-World and the DENR work to develop systems for Green Fins implementation on current sites, we look forward to seeing where the initiative can expand to. By implementing these standards, in both tourism hotspots and emerging destinations, we can help prevent overtourism happening in the first place.

You can find a list of active Green Fins operators in the Philippines here.

 If your dive or snorkel operator is located in the Philippines and you’d like to join Green Fins, please email [email protected] with a completed membership form.