Philippine's Coral Reefs Under Threat

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Nearly all of the ecologically-fragile coral reefs in the Philippines are under severe threat from economic development and climate change.

This was according to an update circulated by the Southeast Asian Centre of Excellence (SEA CoE) during the 11th International Coral Reef Symposium held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida late last year.

The Philippines is part of the so-called coral triangle, which spans eastern Indonesia, parts of Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands. It covers an area that is equivalent to half of the entire United States. 

Although there are 1,000 marine protected areas (MPAs) within the country, only 20 percent are functioning, the update said. MPAs are carefully selected areas where human development and exploitation of natural resources are regulated to protect species and habitats. In the Philippines, coral reefs are important economic assets, contributing more than US$1 billion annually to the economy. 

Many local, coastal communities do not understand or know what a coral reef actually is, how its ecosystem interacts with them, and why it is so important for their villages to preserve and conserve it, SEA CoE said in a statement. 

Coral reefs are some of the world s ecologically-fragile ecosystems. They attract a diverse array of organisms in the ocean. They provide a source of food and shelter for a large variety of species including fish, shellfish, fungi, sponges, sea anemones, sea urchins, turtles and snails.

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.

Coral reefs also create a natural barrier (hence reducing erosion and protecting coastlines) against waves and storm surge. Also, within the past few decades, researches have recognized the potential for deriving medicinal compounds from organisms found on reefs. The Aids drug AZT, for instance, is based on chemicals extracted from a reef sponge. 

Coral reef ecosystems are often hailed by experts as the rainforests of the seas. But unlike their counterparts, they have not given much importance by people since they could not be seen.  

When trees are cut and human beings are affected as a result of flash floods, people rallied against deforestation, explained Dr. Bernhard Riegel, associate director of the National Coral Reef Institute in the United States. But like forests, coral reefs are also suffering the same magnitude of destruction.  

According to marine scientists, 70 percent of the world s coral reefs may be lost by 2050 if human impacts on corals are not reduced. In the Philippines, coral reefs have been slowly dying over the past 30 years.

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.

Last year, Reef Check, an international organization assessing the health of reefs in 82 countries, 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 Batangas.

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, said Dr. Angel C. Alcala, former environment secretary.

Dr. Alcala is known for his work in Apo Island, one of the world-renowned community-run fish sanctuaries in the country. It even earned him the prestigious 1992 Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service.

Rapid population growth and the increasing human pressure on coastal resources have also 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. 

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. 

Aside from human pressures, coral reefs are also facing an unseen scourge: climate change. Coral reefs are under siege from many threats, but climate change is among the most serious risks to their survival, said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, executive director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science. 

Climate change due to the enhanced greenhouse effect has significant consequences for coral reefs, said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN-backed group of experts studying the extent of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions and its impact on the planet. There is a direct link between unusually warm seawater temperature and bleaching of reef-building corals around the world. 

Among those who agree with such troubling assessments is Domingo Ochavillo, a Filipino marine biologist. Coral reefs serve as one of the best barometers of climate change, he was quoted as saying. Coral bleaching is an indicator of what is happening due to global warming. We are going to lose our heritage with this. 

Science, in an article titled World Without Corals? explained what coral bleaching is all about: When sea surface temperatures exceed the normal summer high of one degree Celsius or more for a few weeks running, coral polyps, for reasons not entirely understood, expel their zooxanthellae, the symbiotic algae that lend corals colour and provide nutrients. The polyps turn pale and starve.  

In the famed Galapagos, a single bleaching event wiped out a coral reef that had been around for thousands of years.  

The Philippines must do something now before it is too late. The Philippines is a country that is among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, warned US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) physicist Josefino Comiso.