With sounds of the surf lapping at the harbor next to La Yola restaurant, I tucked into my curried lobster with gusto. Though dining on an over-fished creature, I didn’t feel the least bit guilty. That’s because I knew that the local fishermen were given lobster houses in exchange for a commitment to restrict their catch: no small fries or pregnant females allowed, and no fishing during lobster-ban season.

These locals have plenty of incentive to help recover the struggling lobster population: they’re making top dollar.

The next night, I sat under an umbrella beside a freshwater swimming pool with a sweet, white-meat fish fillet accompanied by petite peas and a puree of carrots. This invasive species, the lionfish, gobbles up young reef fish, out-competes native species for food, and has no natural predators. In these waters, putting it on the menu, and offering local fishermen a premium price for their catch, is an ingenious way to curb its proliferation.

A rare living colony of staghorn coral (Photograph by globalvoyager, Flickr)

A rare living colony of staghorn coral (Photograph by globalvoyager, Flickr)

And this is just the tip of the eco-conscious iceberg at my vacation destination: Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

A larger focus of local efforts is improving the health of the coral reef, a star attraction for snorkelers, divers, and other ocean enthusiasts. One species, the staghorn coral, has had 80-90 percent of its population wiped out in the Caribbean.

The innovative solution? A Coral Restoration Project that employs local divers and provides voluntourism opportunities for visitors who want to help. This hands-on experience, which allows participants to get dive certified in one day, involves trimming small fragments from the endangered coral and planting them on a rebar frame in an underwater “nursery.” Then, once they’ve grown, volunteers move them back to the actual reef.

The 18th hole at the Corales Golf Course (Photograph courtesy Puntacana Resort & Club)

The 18th hole at the Corales Golf Course (Photograph courtesy Puntacana Resort & Club)

These and other programs like them are the province of the Puntacana Ecological Foundation, the nonprofit tasked with protecting the area’s natural resources. It’s funded in large part by–and headquartered on–what appears at first glance to be the unlikeliest of properties: the 15,000-acre Puntacana Resort and Club, renowned for its premier golf courses and expansive real estate development.

Forty years ago, the resort’s founders focused on sustainability when there wasn’t even an eco-ethic bandwagon to jump on. In fact, at that time, (over)fishing and the burning of wood to sell charcoal represented the biggest moneymakers on the Dominican Republic’s eastern coast.

The company believed, quite presciently, that the success of a profit-turning development had to hinge on social and environmental consciousness in order to work. Now it’s a win-win for all involved.

Here are a few of the other ways this tropical paradise is putting eco-sound theories into practice:

  • The Foundation reintroduced the endangered Ridgway’s hawk, which had all but been wiped out, to the Dominican Republic. Conservation efforts have produced two breeding pairs and one baby. The resort may even allow volunteers to take part by supplying scopes to observe the hawks and telemetry devices to track them.
  • A walking or Segway tour takes visitors to a chemical-free vegetable garden where chefs source 20 percent of the produce used in the resort’s six restaurants. Pumpkins, eggplant, plantains, beets, papaya, arugula, and peppers, as well as herbs such as basil and chives, grow in abundance here. Plus, fertilizer produced by worm composting is used on the property, limiting chemical contaminants.
  • In a lemon-yellow bee casita, visitors can inspect two demo hives. Outside more than 400 colonies produce 2,000 gallons of Puntacana forest honey per year, the same wonderfully floral honey that appears on the restaurants’ menus.
  • Unlike other golf courses that suck up a substantial portion of water resources, both Corales and La Cana rely on paspalum, a new grass variety that thrives on sea water, safeguarding the underground aquifer.
  • Regional biodiversity is preserved at the more than 1,000-acre Reserva Ecologica Ojos Indigenas with its 12 freshwater lagoons (three of which offer pristine swimming opportunities) fed from the underground Yauya River. This jungle-like setting, Punta Cana’s only private forest reserve, is threaded with a walking trail hemmed in by red mangrove, mahogany, sabal palms and other trees.

Jeanine Barone is a freelance travel and food writer who writes for National Geographic Traveler and other publications. Keep up with her on Twitter @JCreatureTravel and on her blog

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