Characterizing harmful behavior of divers and snorkelers to coral reefs in Puerto Rico through systematic observation and testing the effectiveness of pre-trip media-based interventions.
Funding:  NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program
Project Date Range:

Project Summary

We are studying the recreational misuse of coral reefs in Puerto Rico. The purpose is to establish baseline data on potentially harmful behaviors of divers and snorkelers to reefs. Such baseline data are necessary in order to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies to influence the behavior. Studies elsewhere have documented serious damage due to recreational visitors. Data in Puerto Rico will be gathered via direct observation in the water of snorkelers and SCUBA divers. Self-reports of behavior will also be collected post-trip. This will allow us to determine the accuracy of self-report data. Once the accuracy of self-report data is known, it can be used to assess the impact of interventions and other factors that may influence visitor behaviors.  In a second phase, we will develop a positive reef etiquette message, drawing on existing video materials.  This will be shown to visitors before they get into the water.  Follow-up observations will document any changes in the rate of potentially harmful behaviors. We will draw conclusions about the severity of threat visitors pose to Puerto Rico's reefs and conclusions about the effectiveness of etiquette messaging.

Read more about the theoretical background of this project.

Recreational misuse may be damaging reefs in many areas of Puerto Rico. The magnitude of the issue is unknown, but it is widely believed to be on par with other threats. Residents and tourists both contribute to the problem. Tourism continues to be strongly promoted without consideration of its impact on the reefs. As part of the Local Action Strategy (LAS), public service messages are being delivered to the public, but it is not known how effective these efforts have been at discouraging harmful behaviors.
We propose to address the problem of harmful behavior by resident and non-resident divers and snorkelers in Puerto Rico.  No baseline data on recreational misuse exist for these users on the island. In fact, scarcely any data is available on snorkelers anywhere. Some research has relied on self-reports of behavior, but it is not known how accurate these data are. To gather baseline data on the behaviors of divers and snorkelers to reefs, we propose to make at least 240 in water observations of divers and snorkelers and to have the same individuals self-report on their behavior.  This will enable us to evaluate the accuracy of self-reports. Our sample will be stratified according to gender and residency. Additional self-report data will be gathered from non-observed individuals to build a database about baseline behavior.
Evidence shows that norm-based messaging can discourage negative behaviors. We propose to investigate the effectiveness of a standardized pre-trip media message to discourage contact with coral. Drawing on social-psychological theories of behavior and the research literatures on risk communication and social norming, we will develop a single message using existing products from previous local action strategies, but will tailor it with input from our partners: tour operators, the Dept of Natural and Environmental Resources, Jobos Bay NERR, La Cordillera Reserve, and La Parguera Reserve, the Caribbean Coral Reef Institute, and other experts in normative social messaging. A minimum of 240 additional in water observations will be made of visitors who viewed the message. Self-report data will also be collected. The effect of the message will be evaluated by comparing rates of contact with coral by visitors who viewed the message with the baseline data.
This project will produce valuable baseline data on recreational misuse. Comparing direct observation with self-report data will reveal the accuracy of self-reports, which are cost-efficient to collect and may be able to be used for evaluation of future local action strategies. The project will also produce a standard media-based message and evaluate its effectiveness at altering behavior. The results will be useful to political jurisdictions outside Puerto Rico and will provide knowledge necessary to make progress on the #1 priority goal listed in NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program: To improve and maintain resilience of coral reef ecosystems and the human communities that depend on them.


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fin kick
Equipment touch
Thomas Webler
Standing on the reef
Fin kick
Fin kick
Standing on the reef
Standing on the reef
Standing on the reef
Touching everything intentionally!
Touching with hand (despite PFD)
Walking on the reef
Our friend "killykat"