By Henrylito D. Tacio
Over the past 30 years, coral reefs in the Philippines have been slowly dying. “The most productive reef areas in the world are now known as some of the most endangered,” said a new report.
In 2002, some of the top leading marine scientists ranked the Philippines as the number one (according to the degree of threat) among the world’s top ten coral reef hotspots. The identified hotspots contain just 24 per cent of the world’s coral reefs, or 0.017 percent of the oceans.
The World Atlas of Coral Reefs, compiled by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), reported that 97 percent of reefs in the Philippines are under threat from destructive fishing techniques, including cyanide poisoning, over-fishing, or from deforestation and urbanization that result in harmful sediment spilling into the sea.
The report has just been confirmed a 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 2007, Reef Check stated that only five percent of the country’s coral reefs are in “excellent condition.” These are the Tubbataha Reef Marine Park in Palawan, Apo Island in Negros Oriental, Apo Reef in Puerto Galera, Mindoro, and Verde Island Passage off Bagatangas.
Unfortunately, these natural treasure throves are in danger. “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 Philippines has about 27,000 square kilometers of coral reefs, says Angel C. Alcala, former environment secretary. Two-thirds of these are in Palawan and the Sulu Archipelago. There are about 400 species of reef-forming corals in the country, comparable with those found in Great Barrier Reef of Australia.
“When divers talked about the world’s finest coral reefs 20 years ago, the consensus for the top spot was always the Philippines, but nobody feels that way now,” commented John McCosker, the chairman of aquatic biology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
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 book on coastal ecosystem.
Coral reefs constitute one of the earth’s most productive ecosystems. “They benefit people directly by providing food, medicine, construction materials and other valuable items,” writes Alan T. White in his book, Coral Reefs: Valuable Resources of Southeast Asia. “More importantly, coral reefs provide support and sustenance to the other coastal ecosystems upon which people depend.”
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 incomes 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 Alcala.
Not only coral reefs serve as home to marine fish species, they also supply compounds for medicines. The Aids drug AZT is based on chemicals extracted from a reef sponge while more than half of all new cancer drug research focuses on marine organisms.
Besides providing food for millions of people, the reefs also generate millions of dollars in tourism and employment. According to the Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI), the total economic value of reefs in the Philippines is estimated at US$1.1 billion annually. In Indonesia, the reefs generate an annual income of US$1.6 billion.
But despite all their uses and economic importance, coral reefs are in the region are in deep trouble. “Coral reefs are the cornerstone of the economic and social fabric of Southeast Asia, yet they are the most threatened reefs in the world,” deplores Lauretta Burke, a WRI senior associate.
In the Philippines, rapid population growth and the increasing human pressure on coastal resources have resulted in the massive degradation of the coral reefs. 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.
“Life in the Philippines is never far from the sea,” wrote Joan Castro and Leona D’Agnes in a new report. “Every Filipino lives within 45 miles of the coast, and every day, more than 4,500 new residents are born.”
Estimates show that if the present rapid population growth and declining trend in fish production continue, only 10 kilograms of fish will be available per Filipino per year by 2010, as opposed to 28.5 kilograms per year in 2003.
The government recognizes the looming crisis posed by declining fish stocks and burgeoning population. “If current trends in population growth and coastal resource exploitation continue,” the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said, “the availability and affordability of fish to provide a crucial protein source will be lost.”
Dynamite and over-fishing on the reefs are largely to blame for the destruction of the very ecosystem that so many poor fishing communities benefit from. Despite laws passed by the government, fishermen are still blasting reefs with dynamite to stun the fish, doing immense damage, and greatly reducing their productivity.
In other parts of the country, fishermen resort to squirting cyanide directly into crevices of the coral reefs to catch fish. “These practices are criminal,” commented the late Jacques-Yves Cousteau after visiting a coastal island in the northern Philippines to examine reefs destroyed by cyanide fishing. “They attack 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.
The Philippine government made and introduced many laws in an attempt to protect the natural environment on the islands and in the national territorial waters. But the government cannot do it alone; help from individuals are also needed to save the reefs from total annihilation.
“We are the stewards of our nation’s resources,” said Rafael D. Guerrero III, the executive director of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development, “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.” — ###