The Philippines is blessed with more than 7,000 islands and is considered as one of the world’s 18 mega-biodiverse countries because its archipelago contains two-thirds of the Earth’s biodiversity which is home to about 70 – 80% of the world’s plant and animal species, according to the convention on Biological Diversity.
The situation on the surface is similar beneath the waters of the Philippines since the country has about 2,500 square kilometers of reef systems which is home to 505 coral species and 915 reef fish species. This made the country the world’s third most coral-rich area after Indonesia and Australia.
But according to Dr. Wilfredo Y. Licuanan, a marine biologist at De La Salle University, the situation may not last long since the country has so far lost a third of the corals in the last 20 years. The basis for this came from the Nationwide Assessment of Coral Reef Environment which started in the year 2014 and had recently finished.
This program was the first nationwide assessment in 40 years and it was funded by the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council of Agricultural, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (DOST – PCAARRD).
In this program, 166 randomly selected reef stations across 31 provinces from 2015 to 2017 was surveyed by Dr. Licuanan and his team. The results of this survey were not good because none of the stations were classified in an excellent category which is based on the live coral cover, and more than 90% of the same stations were in the poor and fair categories.
The study was published in the Philippine Journal of Science last June 2017. This study focused on the fringing reefs or flat reef areas that directly skirt non-reef islands which are the most common types of reefs and the most vulnerable ones because they are nearest to human settlements.
The reef stations can be considered in the excellent category if the live corals make up over 75% of the area, while it is considered fair if the area the coral could cover is from 25% to 50%, and poor if it could only cover from 0% to 25%. In the same study, the average coral cover is only 22%, which is down by 10% from 32% in the past 20 years.
According to Dr. Licuanan, the Philippines lost roughly a third of the coral in 20 years and we also lost our corals with the excellent category in the last 40 years. A result from the 40-year-old nationwide assessment by Drs. Edgardo Gomez and Angel Alcala showed that 5% of the reefs at that time were classified in the excellent category.
But four decades later, the Philippines lost all of them. The study then suggests that, due to the results from the past four decades, the revision and update of conservation and management policies are urgently needed.
The Threat to the Reefs
Our local reef is not the only one damaged. The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, the largest coral reef in the world, has also seen a 50% decline from 1985 to 2012, although this assessment does not take into account some coral recovery in the recent years or the global bleaching in 2016.
While many might blame climate change and global warming as the main reasons for these damages, Dr. Licuanan said that climate change is only secondary to human impact.
Human activities like overfishing and blast fishing destroy reef systems, particularly fringing reefs, which can be found really close to human settlements.
According to a Washington-based non-profit environmental advocacy group in 2015, they noted that the Philippines is one of the top sources of plastic trash dumped into the sea, which contributes to the 2.7 million metric tons of plastic waste and half a million metric tons of plastic waste leakage per year.
It has been pointed out in a 2017 study that, the reefs in Luzon were mostly in the poor category, particularly those in Pangasinan which has an average of 14% cover based on the assessment of two stations in the area. The highest average of coral coverage is in the province of Albay, which is also in Luzon, with the result of 39% based on the assessment of two stations.
The result showed that more than 90% of the stations or 74 of 166 stations of the present study are categorized as poor, and 80 of 166 stations under the fair category.
Despite the depressing results, Dr. Licuanan said that not all is lost because 91 of the reef stations that they observed were not included in the 166 stations in the 2017 study. The 91 reef stations show an increase in coral recovery over the period of 2015 to 2017. This means that while the big picture is looking bad, the data from a selected set of reefs are benefiting from the conservation.
Dr. Licuanan also pointed out that 4 out of the 14 monitored stations in Lian, Batangas bounced back while the rest are still declining.
Community Monitoring Benefit
The silver lining from all this somewhat paints a hopeful view of the state of coral reefs in the Philippines. Although the big picture might be bad if you look from 2016 to 2017 reports when at least a third of the Great Barrier Reef was lost; but within the same period, it also showed that some of the reefs that were monitored were actually recovering.
One of these is the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, which is considered the largest and the best managed marine protected area in the Philippines. According to Dr. Licuanan, monitoring these reefs allow them to see warning signs, allows them to detect stressors and in both cases, and gives them the ability to do something rather than just lament over what has been lost.
Monitoring is important to maintain and help the reefs recover. It is being done by universities and very few marine biologists in the country, that is why it is important to encourage communities to manage their coastal waters like the town of Tingloy in Batangas that has a reef near one of the barangays. It is one of the major sources of income is bringing tourists to snorkel in the reef.
It is the idea of the community-based management because conservation of the reef could firstly benefit the community if it is done right; and if it fails the community, the community is also the first one to be affected.
Dr. Licuanan also trains fisherfolk in their stations in Batangas on how to monitor the reefs using a custom-made monopod which can take photos and allow people on land to measure and count corals. He also said that the aim of this program is to urge the other communities to do the same. Aside from the communities, he also stressed the benefit of teaching marine conservation in schools.
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