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Marine preservation, the way forward: An interview with Castro Perez, the founder of Aruba`s Reef Ca

Diving is a joy to many, yet many people are still lacking the knowledge of marine conservation and proper conduct. It is not only the diver that must understand the importance of reef care but also the island population themselves. At this years CTO Sustainable Tourism Conference many issues were raised on the importance of maintaining the Caribbeans natural resources, for its children. One such project is the Aruba Reef Care Project. Founded by Castro E. Perez, Aruba`s Ecotourism Project Manager and Dive Market Specialist, the project is this year celebrating its tenth anniversary and for this reason Caribbean Weekly caught up with the great man himself to discuss the importance of Marine awareness for the Caribbean`s future.
CW: How is tourism on the beautiful island of Aruba? How important is the issue of diving in attracting tourists to the Caribbean island? How much profit does the industry create?

CP: The tourism is going very well in Aruba, in fact tourism is the largest
contributor to Aruba`s Economy. It equals a 79 % contribution to government revenues. That is 40% of the GDP. 2/3 of the workforce is directly or indirectly involved in tourism. In other words tourism is very important to the island of Aruba.

CW: How do you set about preserving the waters around the island? Bonaire designate`s all of the waters around the island as marine conservation area, will Aruba follow suit?CP: Yes, Indeed we do already have a concept of Aruba`s Marine Park in place. The government is pending to implement a special body that will function as Coastal Zone Management. They are planning to implement some additional
marine environments legislation in the near future. (All this will be the frame of our marine
park program).

CW: Tell Caribbean Weekly readers about your project?

CP: I initiated the ARCP (Aruba Reef Care Project), 10 years ago. On my own initiative I decided to organise all of the dive operators and water-sport companies to be part of this annual awareness campaign. On a yearly basis we run a program involving several presentations for primary schools, high schools and junior college. We also produce these programs for the local service clubs, such as Aruba Rotary and Lions. We have not only concentrated on cleaning the reefs but also the tidying of all public beaches, and shallow waters. This has been a huge success! A great sign is that each year less garbage is
collected, and also the amount of participants increases! This year we had 850 participants, diving, snorkelling and on shore. Our first target group were the dive masters/dive instructors; this was to ensure that they provide proper and through briefings/instructions to all divers and snorkelers. They have to explain about the fragile and unique marine environment around the island, visitors have to understand not to touch anything underwater, as this can be very harmful to the marine environment. We have won many awards locally and also internationally. The project has also attracted a wealth of international media attention; we have been well documented by such channels as CNN (world report), and Despierta America (Latin America version of Good Morning America)


CW: How important are projects such as the one that you work on in sustaining the reefs and quality of diving?

CP: Very important, considering that the beach and reef are USP of Aruba`s
tourism product. I also consider that each island of the Caribbean must have some type of program in place. It might be an annual awareness campaign, or clean-up actions to protect its beaches, reef, marina`s and so forth. On the island of Aruba, for example, there are different groups each working in the same direction, striving to protect our coastal areas. To mention some: In 1994 ARCP was the very first organisation that began with the campaign to initiate the
first underwater clean-up actions on the reefs and on all public beaches (we
have only public beaches in Aruba). AHATA environment committee (Aruba Hotel
& Tourism Association) created the `Sponsor a mile campaign` (these are clean-up actions in the hotel areas on land), PADI project awareness second annual beach clean-up project, and this is organized by Red Sail Sports.(a watersport operator). The Annual Aruba Coastal Clean-up is already 3 years in existence. Here Government and private sectors combine to create a greater good.

CW: What are your views on the Blue Flag program?CP: It is an excellent program, and I encourage all Caribbean islands to be part of it. But if you have an excellent annual awareness program, where you have private &
government organisations monitoring on the quality of your beaches, marina`s and other marine areas 85 %  of the job is already done and therefore it is very easy to implement the Blue Flag program on any island of the Caribbean.

CW: If few islands actually secondary process waste and still send it off shore, how much impact is this having on reefs?CP: In the long run, you will notice that it is not healhty, and will be detrimental for the coral reefs. In Aruba we have one of the most modern water treatment plants facility in the Caribbean. All of the hotels in Aruba are connected to our water treatment plant. So all waste water goes to the water treatment plant. About two to three year ago, the government of Aruba invested several million Aruban guilders to upgrade the

CW: What sets diving in Aruba apart from other Caribbean islands?CP: What sets us apart is that we are known in the Caribbean as the, “Wreck Diving Capital
of the Caribbean.” Rodale`s Scuba Diving magazine readers poll named Aruba as “the top wreck diving destination in the Caribbean.” Not only this, we also have a coral reef that runs parallel with the south coast, in other words the whole south coast is a coral reef, with over 20 dive sites. We have 11 diveable wrecks. These include a plane, tugboats, cement cargo ship, war vessels, and historic wrecks such as Antilla, California, and Pedernales. Some of these we have sunk on purpose, to create artificial reefs. It really helps us take the pressure of the natural coral reefs, and this has had very, very successful results.
CW: What are your views on the cruise industry and the effect that it can have on dive resources - do you feel that there should be restrictions on the amount of cruise arrivals?CP: The cruise industry is a form of mass tourism, and this may cause negative effects on any Caribbean island and its reefs. Each island must implement strict restrictions on, for example, how many people they are going to take on each particular dive, either to a reef or to a wreck. In Aruba we supply guided dives. This means each dive master will take only a limited amount of divers with them, he or she is responsible for the action of their divers.
CW: How important is it to educate local children on `reef awareness` from a young age, and what schemes do you and your project have in place?CP: Very important! In fact in Aruba we have implemented the subject of the environment as part of the children’s nature education. We teach the school children about recycling, reduction, re-use, ways for treatment of waste water, the process to become a green hotel, the importance of marine conservation and what coral reefs are. Here is where ARCP plays a very important role, and we stress on the importance of the protection and preservation of our marine environment. The school children become part of our project by participating in the lectures and seminars. They can also enter a poster contest with some very wonderful prizes.
CW: What are Aruba`s laws on anchor usage?

CP: It is prohibed to anchor on Coral reefs. We have mooring systems on all the dive sites in Aruba. We use the Dr. Halas technique.

CW: Is spear fishing still permitted?

CP: No, it is prohibited to spear fish, and we have very strict laws in place.

CW: Where has been the best reef care that you have witnessed throughout the Caribbean - who could people learn lessons from?CP: The island of Bonaire is a good example of how to maintain reef`s to a very high standard. Their marine parks are an example to us all.
CW: Finally, which islands really need to `wake up and smell the coffee` with regards to marine/reef conservation?CP: There are still many island in the Caribbean that really need to jump start awareness programs on the islands. If the governments of the Caribbean are motivated to create the initiative , automatically the private sector will
jump in and also provide substantial sponsorship to these projects. One body needs
to come-up with the initiative and the other will follow. All of this is for
their own economic benefit as it increases divers awarness of the diving, and improves the quality of the dive site.

And so with that, I slip into my 7mm dry suit, check my regulator and ensure that there is enough air in my tank. I then check the water temperature, a refreshing 5 above zero, bottoms up! Well, at least I cannot damage any coral in the Thames!
Caribbean Weekly would like to thank Castro for his time. Happy and Careful diving.