Diving for Coral Conservation: Chichiriviche Hope Spot
April 24, 2017
To view the article in Spanish, click here.
By: Shilpi Chhotray, Communications Strategist
The town of Chichiriviche de la Costa is a small gem on the Venezuelan coastline, set in a tranquil bay where a freshwater river runs through the mountains and empties into the sea. The locals live in the hills just above the beach, consisting of a few hundred people whose income is derived from fishing and local tourism opportunities. Coral reefs live on both sides of the bay, accompanied by a wide diversity of marine life. A variety of medusa and sea sponges frequently attract Hawksbill sea turtles which are commonly found feeding on the beach. Upwellings occur twice a year, providing important phytoplankton and zooplankton blooms which entice various species of sardines and herring. In turn, cetaceans and whale sharks are commonly seen during September through March each year. Unique marine life including frogfish, sea horses, crustaceans, nudibranks, mollusks, sea cucumbers,crinoids, sea stars, anemones, tunicates, clams, oysters, and sea urchins are also common to Chichiriviche’s waters. Not surprisingly, the bay and nearby coastline are excellent for scuba diving and snorkeling, with easy access from the beach.
Tourism, Diving + Conservation
The unparalleled beauty and vibrant sea life of Chichiriviche continue to draw crowds of beach-goers and marine enthusiasts to its coastline. However, short-term visitors have little awareness of the importance in preserving the beach and ocean environment, resulting in negligence and pollution. Venezuelans traveling from Caracas, a mere two-hour drive from Chichiriviche vacation right on the beach and unknowingly interfere with marine life. For example, the bay is a vital nesting site for turtles but with the increase in beach activity, lights and noise, their presence has greatly diminished. Coral reef species like Acropora palmata are critically endangered due to the impacts of rising sea temperatures and the river discharging contaminants into the ocean.
Interest in diving, in particular, has led to the opening of two scuba diving schools. The scuba divers are passionate about their local marine flora and fauna and work with the local community to become better stewards of their environment. However, inexperienced scuba divers with poor buoyancy control break the few surviving corals.
BIOSub is a group of Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) students blending marine science and conservation with underwater activities (SCUBA diving, freediving, spearfishing), while supporting biological research projects. BIOSub in collaboration with CECOBIO, both extension groups from UCV’s Faculty of Science, are currently designing a conservation project aiming to improve the general value of Chichiriviche’s coral ecosystem. Rubén Niño is currently studying Biology at UCV and fell in love with coral reef freediving. Working at one of Chichiriviche’s local dive centers has given him a unique perspective on coral reef ecosystems underwater and local activities on land. One of his goals is designing sustainable fishing techniques while educating locals, divers and tourists to become more aware of the environment and in turn, care about it. He remarks;
“Many experienced divers say Chichiriviche’s coral population has diminished dramatically in time from a combination of environmental conditions and irresponsible fishing and diving. If we don’t act now, all of those beautiful dive sites will be gone in the near future, but we still have time. Education is the key to conservation.”
Strength in Awareness
The connectivity of Hope Spots has remarkably established an important link with Choroni, a neighboring community, also a Mission Blue Hope Spot. Marco Caputo, a Marine Biologist from Choroni joined forces with a conservationist from Chichiriviche, Gabriela Chirinos, to educate their residents about the Hope Spot. The two experts led a lively discussion on their collaboration with Mission Blue, Choroni’s successful sea turtle project, and a discourse on coral reefs. Hosting the event at a dive school garnered interest from over 30 people including members of the National Guard. The outcome resulted in future plans for local residents to become more involved in their Hope Spot while strengthening relationships with the diving community.
BIOsub, in particular, is leading efforts in coral and algae research, beach clean-up activities, and training and educating locals about diving. Exciting plans are also underway for a Reef Check representative to train a team of local divers on how to monitor their reefs through data collection and surveys.
Gregg Magrane, one of Chichiriviche’s Hope Spot champions exclaims;
“Conservation is a strategy for sustainability and generational justice, namely a sense of fairness for future generations. In our conservation efforts, we are in the process of increasing the consciousness of the tourists, divers, fishermen and local inhabitants. We feel making everyone aware is the best way to ensure the environment is not destroyed. Our Hope Spot nominations have given us concrete foundations to go forward with this ideal and with preserving healthy marine environments for Choroni and Chuao and Chichiriviche de le Costa.”