By Henrylito D. Tacio
My friend, who is a physician, loves scuba diving. “As if I am in another world,” he explains of his hobby. “Down under, as I swim I see a different kind of spectacle. It’s a feeling that only you can truly appreciate and experience.”
The undersea world he is referring to is the ecologically-fragile coral reefs. The Philippines has about 27,000 square kilometers of coral reefs. 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.
United States marine biologist Dr. Kent Carpenter, who has been diving in the country’s oceans since the 1970s, considers the Philippines to be “the best place in the world for a marine biologist.”
Thanks to its coral reefs, which constitute one of the earth’s most productive ecosystems. “They benefit people directly by providing food, 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,” Dr. Angel C. Alcala, former environment secretary.
What my physician friend doesn’t know – and this may interest a lot of doctors, too! – is that coral reefs are a vast source of medicines that could help humanity. In fact, they could be the major sources of many new medicines in the 21st century.
“Marine sources could be the major source of drugs for the next decade,” points out Dr. William Fenical, an American natural products chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.
Like the tropical rain forests, coral reefs hold considerable untapped potential in the science of medicine. In Japan’s reefs -- one of the most studied coral coasts in the world -- there is a chemical called kainic acid, which is used as a diagnostic chemical to investigate Huntington’s chorea, a rare but fatal disease of the nervous system.
Coral reefs also produce a natural sunscreen, which is now being marketed to sell as a sunscreen to humans in the United States. Also, the porous limestone skeleton of coral is now being tested as bone grafts in humans.
“If used properly, the reefs of the entire world can better serve humans with medicine rather than with food,” some researchers claim. “Half the potential pharmaceuticals being explored are from the oceans, many from coral reef ecosystems,” estimates the US State Department.
In an article, which appeared in Reef Research, Dr. Patrick Colin, a marine biologist, clearly described the hopes that had led him to spend the 1990s collecting marine samples in the Pacific for the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI).
“Over the years, the NCI has been screening terrestrial plants and marine organisms worldwide for bioactivity against cancer and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), and has come up with a number of hot prospects, a number of which are in clinical trials,” Dr. Colin reports.
“Many coral reef species produce chemicals like histamines and antibiotics used in medicine and science,” reports The Nature Conservancy, an organization whose mission is to preserve plants, animals and natural communities by protecting the lands and waters needed for their survival.
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. Chemicals from sea sponges collected off the coast of Florida have been used in developing a new drug, Ara-C, used to treat acute myelocytic leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The antiviral drug called Ara-A is used for the treatment of herpes infections.
Unfortunately, the future of our coral reefs is in jeopardy. Ten percent of the world's coral reefs have already been seriously degraded and a much greater percentage is threatened, particularly in areas adjacent to human populations. If this decline continues, there could be a significant loss of the world's reefs and their resources,
The Philippines, home to over 400 local species of corals, which is more than what is found in the famous Great Barrier Reef of Australia, is not spared from this environmental problem.
Nationwide surveys conducted from the 1970s to the 1990s found that only 4-5 percent of the reefs were in excellent condition, 25-27 percent good, 39-42 percent fair, and 27-31 percent poor.
“The general trend is negative for the coral reefs in the Philippines,” disclosed a report released by the World Bank. It cited an international analysis of coral reefs status around the world and found that the Philippines had “the most degraded reefs of all sampled countries.”
The analysis found that 98 percent of coral reefs in the country were “at risk from human activities,” with 70 percent at high or very high risk. “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 Reef Check, an international marine watchdog group based in California.
The decline is thought to be due primarily to destructive human activities. “Many areas are in really bad shape due largely to unwise coastal land use, deforestation and the increasing number of fishermen resorting to destructive fishing methods,” says marine biologist Porfirio M. Alino.
Dr. Edgardo D. Gomez, director of the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines at Diliman, agrees. “If asked what the major problem of coral reefs is, my reply would be ‘The pressure of human populations’,” he asserted.
A visit to any fishing village near a reef will quickly confirm this, he pointed out. “There are just too many fishermen. They overfish the reefs, and even if the use non-destructive fishing gear, they still stress the coral reef ecosystem,” Dr. Gomez deplored.
“Life in the Philippines is never far from the sea,” wrote Joan Castro and Leona D’Agnes in a recent report. “Every Filipino lives within 45 miles of the coast, and every day, more than 4,500 new residents are born.”
Coral reefs have been around for about 200 million years, and have survived eons of storm-induced damage and sea animal predation. Unfortunately, their survival in this century is less certain.
Let us then help conserve and protect our coral reefs. The words of Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III of the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development, come in handy: “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.”