Only 5% of Philippine coral reefs remain

Read this and weep: A marine scientist from the University of the Philippines has revealed that only 5 percent —equivalent to just around 1,000 square kilometers—of the country’s total reef area remain in good condition in the face of the wanton destruction of our coral reefs by poachers.

The estimated reef area of the Philippines ranges from 19,000 to 27,000 square kilometers, depending on the territorial boundaries and depth ranges. This makes the Philippines’s reef areas one of the biggest in Southeast Asia, more so if those in the disputed Kalayaan Islands were included.

The revelation of Dr. Porfirio Alino of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) comes on the heels of published reports about the destruction of a reef area in Southern Mindanao that is five times bigger than Metro Manila.

The Philippines is the center of marine biodiversity in the world, Alino said, but this distinction may not stand for long as coral reefs in the country are deteriorating very rapidly.

He said only 5 percent of the country’s total reef area is now in good condition. A recent assessment by a team of Filipino marine experts showed that the healthy reefs were in the Celebes Sea, Southern Philippine Sea, Sulu Sea and the waters in the Visayas.

Combined, these healthy patches of coral reefs would span an area a little bigger than Marinduque, a small island-province in Southern Tagalog that covers 959 sq km.

“Our estimates suggest that there are only a few reefs in excellent condition, meaning good reefs with healthy reef biomass and diversity,” Alino told the BusinessMirror. “There has also been a profound reduction by around 20 percent, especially in the Visayan seas, of the marine reef fish biodiversity in the last three decades.”

There are more than 400 species of reef-forming corals in the country. Philippine coral reefs are part of a larger system that is home to 76 percent of all known corals called the Coral Triangle that covers the seas of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste.

In the Philippines an estimated 8 percent to 20 percent of the total fisheries come from coral reefs, and about 70 percent of the incomes of small island-communities come from fisheries, Alino said.

While corals have survived for hundreds of millions of years by adapting to and recovering from major climate changes, there is a question now on how they can survive the additional stresses caused by humans.

Cyanide fishing, pollution, overdevelopment along the shore and reckless recreation (coral collection) are some of the threats to these delicate ocean habitats.

Taking action

If the reefs vanished, experts say, hunger, poverty and political instability could ensue. An estimated 1 billion people across Asia alone depend on them for food and livelihoods.

Further declines in the coastal ecosystem’s goods and services will affect the livelihood of at least 4 million to 6 million Filipinos in the next decade.

The fishers have been identified as the poorest of the poor sectors in the country, thus, becoming more impoverished due to food deficits and decrease in livelihood incomes.

The reefs also generate millions of dollars in tourism and employment. According to the Washington-based World Resources Institute, the total economic value of reefs in the Philippines is estimated to be $1.1 billion annually.

The country’s coastal and marine resources require investments of at least 1 percent of gross domestic product to improve efforts to safeguard them and to ensure the sustainable development of the marine and ecosystem’s goods and services, such as fisheries, coastal tourism, energy and mineral resources.

“The threat of losing our biodiversity is really serious,” said Rodel Subade, director of the UP Visayas Institute of Fisheries, Policy and Development Studies, in a recent interview. “For it [threat] to be stopped, we would need the participation of all stakeholders, particularly the people in the community near the biodiversity areas. But this is difficult to attain or sustain.”

Subade suggested that re-education or an information campaign needed to be strengthened, coupled with the introduction of alternative livelihood, which would complement biodiversity conservation.

Alino said opportunities for diversifying livelihoods for fishermen should be pursued.

Over the years, the government enacted many laws to protect the natural environment on the archipelago its territorial waters.

Such laws include Republic Act 7160 (Local Government Code of 1991) and the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act, or Republic Act 7586 of 1992. In 1994 the Philippines adopted a National Marine Policy to develop a comprehensive program aimed at managing coastal and marine resources, in compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Most recently, under Section 81 of the 1998 Philippine Fisheries Code, fish sanctuaries or marine-protected areas (MPAs) were established.

Both Subade and Alino agreed that the establishment of MPAs benefited not only marine life but also people who depended on it for their livelihood.

“The establishment and maintenance of MPAs has become the most effective tool or approach in saving the last remaining coral reefs in the country,” Subade said.

But Alino said in a study he conducted, he found that of the more than 600 MPAs that have been established, only around 10 percent were actually being managed effectively. Still, he noted an increase in the number of local government units cooperating in the coral-reefs protection program.

“Strong national policies are imperative,” he said and cited the need for interaction among local government units to solve the problem. He lamented that the capability of national government agencies to act decisively on marine problems appears to have diminished in recent years. He said there was a need to provide more support “to enhance their capacity to provide technical assistance and improve their capability to fight crimes against our natural heritage.”

Alino also urged that a coral-reef trust fund for resource management should be established.

In 2009 the government, through the Department of Science and Technology, funded a P39-million three-year collaborative climate-research program to determine the range of coral- reef ecosystem vulnerabilities. The program was called the Integrated Coastal Enhancement: Climate Research, Enhancement and Adaptive Management.

Dr. Laura David, an oceanographer at the UP Marine Science Institute, said earlier that their research had revealed coral bleaching, rising water temperature and coastal erosion in several parts of the Philippine coastline.

“We are in the process of understanding and monitoring the behavior of the coastal ecosystem in order to meet the diverse challenges and opportunities that climate change brings,” David said.


Akbayan (Citizens Action Party) to DENR: “Nip in the bud” marine poaching

Coinciding with the observance of the national fisherfolks’ day, former Akbayan Representative Risa Hontiveros today challenged the Aquino government to “pull out all the stops” necessary to protect the country’s dwindling marine resources.

Hontiveros made the statement in response to reports that poachers decimated a coral reef system in Southern Mindanao estimated to be five times the size of Metro Manila.

The Bureau of Customs seized more than P 20 million worth of black corals and other endangered species believed to be sourced from the said reef system. Another shipment of black corals was also seized in the Port of Cebu. It was reported that more than 21,000 seashells and black corals were illegally harvested along with 161 sea turtles.

“The destruction of our coral reef is revolting. It is a monstrous crime. It is too awful for words,” Hontiveros said.

“Nip in the bud”

Hontiveros, who is also a certified diver, said while she commends the customs bureau for stopping the shipment, asserted that the government must also take note of the fact that the said corals and other species were already harvested. She said the government must “nip in the bud” said illegal activity.

“There is really a need to step up the enforcement of our laws and the policing of our marine resources. Huwag na nating hayaan na umabot pa ang ating mga yamang dagat sa pier. Dahil kahit masawata natin ang kontrabando, talo pa rin tayo dahil nawasak na ang ating kalikasan,” Hontiveros said.

Hontiveros said Department of Environment and National Resources (DENR) must take the lead in this campaign.

“The DENR must be resolute on this matter. They must show that they are on top of the matter. Kailangan managot ang mga may sala. They must make the poachers pay and not profit.”

Review of the Fisheries Code

Hontiveros also called for a comprehensive review of the Philippine Fisheries Code. She said stiffer penalties must be imposed on poachers.

“It is just ridiculous that the trade of these endangered marine species would only cost the violator 20,000 pesos, more or less the price of an IPod music player. This is practically loose change to these big-time poachers.”

However, Hontiveros was quick to qualify her call for a comprehensive appraisal of the Fisheries Code.

“We also have to be mindful of the kind of review we ought to do with the Fisheries Code. It really has to be in the context of increasing protection for our marine resources and putting heavier penalties for violators while ensuring the livelihood of our small fishermen,” said Hontiveros.

The Akbayan stalwart made the statement in reaction to the fear expressed by many fisherfolk groups that there are “some quarters” calling for the amendment of the code to benefit big-time commercial fishing industries.

“We will not let this happen. The fisheries Code will remain rooted to the ordinary fisherman’s interest while providing it more teeth to combat large-scale environmental crimes,” Hontiveros concluded.

The Cotabato reef system is estimated to be around 7,000 hectares and forms part of the Coral Triangle of Southeast Asia, which stretches from northern Philippines down to northern Australia and extends east to the seas off the coast of Papua New Guinea. This area is home to more than 2/3 of the World’s coral species. It is also one of the most endangered by overfishing and poaching.