Philippines fast losing its coral reefs

by Henrylito D. Tacio

Coral reefs in much of the Asia and the Pacific region are dying faster than previously thought with the decline driven by climate change, disease and coastal development, according to a study done between 1968 and 2004, which examined 6,000 surveys of more than 2,600 Indo-Pacific coral reefs.

      Researchers from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill found that coral coverage in the Indo-Pacific — an area stretching from Indonesia’s Sumatra island to French Polynesia — dropped 20 percent in the past two decades.

      The Philippines is not spared from destruction and has been described as having “poorly managed marine reserves.”

The new report has just confirmed the recent survey released by Reef Check, an international organization assessing the health of reefs in 82 countries.

      “Despite its high biodiversity, the Philippines’ reefs are very badly damaged.   It’s one of the worst damaged in the world, on the average,” says George Hodgson, founder of the California-based organization.

     In the late 1970s, a study conducted by the East-West Center in Hawaii showed that more than half of the coral reefs in the Philippines were “in advanced states of destruction.” Only about 25 per cent of live coral cover were in “good condition,” while only 5 per cent were in “excellent condition.”

      “Nowhere else in the world are coral reefs abused as much as the reefs in the Philippines,” deplored marine scientist Don McAllister, who has also done some studies on the cost of coral reef destruction in the country.

      The new report is indeed bad news for Filipino fishermen.   A single reef can support as many as 3,000 species of marine life. As fishing grounds, they are thought to be 10 to 100 times as productive per unit area as the open sea.

      In the Philippines, an estimated 10-15 per cent of the total fisheries come from coral reefs. About 80-90 per cent of the income of small island communities come from fisheries. “Coral reef fish yields range from 20 to 25 metric tons per square kilometer per year for healthy reefs,” says Dr. Angel C. Alcala, former environment secretary.


Biological wonders

      Coral reefs, or “biological wonders” as environmental author Don Hinrichsen calls them, are among the largest and oldest living communities of plants and animals on earth, having evolved between 200 and 450 million years ago.

      “Today, most established coral reefs are between 5,000 and 10,000 years old; many of them forming thin veneers over older, much thicker reef structures,” said Hinrichsen, who has explored coral reefs around the world for his recent book on coastal ecosystem.

      Most of the reefs are found in the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn – in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and South Pacific. They also thrive where warm current are found off Florida, Bermuda, southern Japan and Australia. The richest reefs, however, are located in the region bounded by Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

     The Philippines holds one of the most extensive coral reefs in the world with a sprawling area of 27,000 square kilometers. These contain a quarter of all the coral species known in the world. Unfortunately, only 400 of these species remain, according to the Center for Environmental Concern.

     “The coral reefs of the Philippines have the highest number of marine fish species in the world,” said Dr. Rafael Guerrero III, executive director of the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development (PCAMRD).

      Unfortunately, these reefs may not survive unless they receive much greater care. “A dive into the depths of Samal reef gardens will reveal colorful underwater vistas, but not all are in a good shape,” says Gregory Ira, a Filipino-American environmentalist.

      Dr. Robert Ginsburg, a specialist on coral reefs working with the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, said human beings have a lot to do with the rapid destruction of reefs. “In areas where people are using the reefs or where there is a large population, there are significant declines in coral reefs,” he pointed out.

      Dr. Edgardo Gomez, a Filipino marine scientist, has the same opinion. “If asked what the major problem of coral reefs is, my reply would be ‘The pressure of human population,'” he said. A visit to any fishing village near a reef will quickly confirm this, he added. “There are just too many fishermen,” he pointed out.

Vanishing coral reefs

      Destructive fishing methods – ranging from dynamite blasts to cyanide poisons – are destroying vast areas of reef. Fishermen are still blasting reefs with dynamite to stun the fish, doing immense damage, and greatly reducing their productivity.

      According to the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), an estimated 330,000 pounds of cyanide is sprayed on Philippine coral reefs each year, destroying what Jacques-Yves Cousteau described as “the natural productive environment which allows the renewal of marine resources.”

      Coral mining has also depleted the country’s reefs. An estimated 1.5 million kilograms of coral are harvested annually as part of the international trade in reef products. The Philippines is estimated to supply more than a third of the total.

      In recent years, a phenomenon called bleaching has also threatened large areas of the country’s reefs. This adds to the problems caused by sedimentation (following deforestation), quarrying of the reefs for construction purposes and pollution from industry, mining, and urban sprawl.

      “About 95 per cent of the reefs in the Philippines have been badly damaged,” Hodgson said. The good news is: “With just a little bit of effort, you can allow them to recover,” he added.

       One sign of hope is the Tubbataha Reef.   In the late 1980s, overfishing and destructive fishing practices were rampant, with coral cover reduced by 50 per cent over a five-year period ending in 1989. Today, the 33,200-hectare area is a national marine park.

      Both government and non-governmental organizations have worked together to manage the park since its establishment in 1988. Since 1989, the condition of the coral reef substrate has “improved remarkably” and the diversity of fish is “exceptionally high.”

      There’s more to coral reefs than fish. “The extensive destruction of Philippine coral reefs has constricted the development of tourism in the country’s coastal areas,” contends Dr. MacAllister. “If the coral reefs recover, there will enormous growth in coastal tourism.”

      For centuries, coastal communities have used reef plants and animals for their medicinal properties. In the Philippines, for instance, giant clams are eaten as a malaria treatment.

      Dr. Guerrero urges: “We are the stewards of our nation’s resources; we should take care of our national heritage so that future generations can enjoy them. Let’s do our best to save our coral reefs. Our children’s children will thank us for the effort.” — ###


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