By Zsarlene B. Chua
The Philippines, with its more than 7,000 islands, is considered one of the world’s 18 mega-biodiverse countries — the archipelago contains “two-thirds of the earth’s biodiversity and between 70% and 80% of the world’s plant and animal species,” according to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Looking beneath its waters is a similar sight as the country has about 25,000 square kilometers of reef systems — it is home to 505 coral species and 915 reef fish species. The country is the world’s third most coral-rich area after Indonesia and Australia.
But that bounty may not last for long as the country has so far lost “a third of the corals in the last 20 years,” said Dr. Wilfredo Y. Licuanan, a marine biologist at De La Salle University, during an interview with BusinessWorld on June 26 in the university’s Manila campus.
This conclusion was according to the recently finished Nationwide Assessment of Coral Reef Environment which was started in 2014.
The P93-million program was funded by the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (DoST-PCAARRD). It was the first nationwide assessment in 40 years.
Dr. Licuanan and his team surveyed 166 randomly selected reef stations across 31 provinces from 2015 to 2017 and the results were not promising as “none of these stations were classified in the ‘excellent’ category based on live coral cover, and more than 90% of the same stations were in the ‘poor’ and ‘fair’ categories,” said a study published in the Philippine Journal of Science in June 2017.
The study only focused on fringing reefs or flat reef areas that directly skirt non-reef islands. These are the most common types of reefs and are the most vulnerable ones, said Dr. Licuanan, because they are the nearest to human settlements.
Reef stations are considered “excellent” if live coral cover makes up over 75% of the area, and are considered “fair” if the cover is from 25% to 50%, and “poor” if cover is 0% to 25%.
The same study stated that the average hard coral cover is 22%, down 10% from 20 years ago when it was 32%.
“We lost roughly a third of the coral in 20 years and we lost our ‘excellent’ category corals in the last 40 years,” Dr. Licuanan said in the interview.
The 40-year-old nationwide assessment conducted by Drs. Edgardo Gomez and Angel Alcala, both of whom are National Scientists, showed that 5% of the reefs surveyed at the time were “excellent.”
Four decades later, the country has lost all of them.
“These values indicate a marked decline in the condition of local reefs over the last four decades, thereby revealing the urgent need for the revision and update of conservation and management policies,” the study said.
REEFS UNDER THREAT
The Philippines is not alone when it comes to reef damage and loss: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — the world’s largest coral reef — has also seen a 50% decline in coral cover from 1985-2012 (though this assessment does not take into account some coral recovery in recent years or the global bleaching event in 2016), according to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation website.
And while many might blame climate change and global warming as the main reasons for the damage, Dr. Licuanan said “the effects of climate change is actually secondary to human impact.”
Pollution, overfishing, blast fishing, among others, destroy reef systems, particularly fringing reefs which can be really close to human settlements.
The Washington-based non-profit environmental advocacy group, Ocean Conservancy, noted in 2015 that the Philippines is one of the top sources of plastic trash dumped into the sea, contributing 2.7 million metric tons of plastic waste and half a million metric tons of plastic-waste leakage per year.
The 2017 study pointed out that reefs in Luzon were mostly in the “poor” category, with Pangasinan, in particular, only having 14% average hard coral cover based on the assessment of two stations. On the other hand, the province of Albay, also in Luzon, had the highest average hard coral cover at 39% based on the assessment of two stations.
In all, “more than 90% of the stations of the present study are in the poor (74 of 166 stations) and fair (80 of 166 stations) categories.”
“People have started reminding me that I can be very depressing when presenting,” Dr. Licuanan said before adding that he is a biodiversity scientist, a job one of his colleagues likened to writing the obituaries of nature, as most of the time that’s what they do — document the loss of biodiversity.
But all is not lost, as Dr. Licuanan observed that in some stations where there is monitoring, they have seen some improvement in coral cover.
Ninety-one monitored reef stations were not included in the 166 stations in the 2017 study, he explained.
“There was some kind of management in those [monitored] reefs. In the 91 reefs that are monitored, coral cover was actually increasing over the period of 2015 to 2017. So it shows us that [while] the big picture is bad, but if you look at data from a select set of reefs that benefit from some management, it is recovering,” he said.
Dr. Licuanan pointed out that out of the 14 monitoring stations in Lian, Batangas where the Alfred Shields Ocean Research Center (of which he is the founding director) is located, “at least four reefs bounced back while the rest are still declining.”
BENEFIT OF COMMUNITY MONITORING
This silver lining, if you will, paints a somewhat hopeful view of the state of coral reefs in the country.
“The big picture might be bad but if you look at 2016 to 2017 when at least a third of the Great Barrier Reef was lost, [but] during that same period, the reefs we monitored were recovering,” he said.
There is, for example, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park which is considered “the largest, and the best managed marine protected area in the Philippines,” according to a study by Dygico, et. al in 2014 as quoted by the Licuanan, et. al 2017 study.
“Monitoring allows us to see warning signs, it allows us to detect stressors and in both cases, monitoring allows us to do something rather than just lament [over] what we have lost,” Dr. Licuanan said.
Monitoring is crucial in maintaining and helping reefs recover but Dr. Licuanan said that the monitoring is being done by universities and that there are very few marine biologists like him in the country (he figures that there are only about 200 to 300 marine biologists going by the members of the Philippine Association of Marine Science), so there’s not a lot of people to go around.
What he and his team now are trying to do is to encourage communities to manage their coastal waters.
“I have a team in Batangas training people in two towns to monitor reefs that are important to them,” he said.
One of the towns, Tingloy, has a reef near one of the barangays where one of the major sources of income is bringing tourists to snorkel in the reef.
“That’s the idea of community-based management/conservation because the first to benefit, if they do it right and protect the reef, is the community. If the community fails, they’re the first ones who will be affected,” Dr. Licuanan said.
“It also encourages accountability. Our challenge when it comes to reef management is it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind.’” He added that since only universities do the monitoring, once the researchers are done, monitoring stops and the destruction continues.
Dr. Licuanan and his team train fisherfolk in these two towns on how to monitor reefs using a custom-made monopod which takes photos and allows people on land to measure and count corals. He said they are piloting this program in these two towns in order to urge other communities to do the same.
Aside from the communities, Dr. Licuanan stressed that much can be done if marine conservation is taught in schools.
“It’s not about training more marine biologists, it’s making marine biologists of anyone who cares to listen or, ideally, everybody who is made to listen because it’s in their curriculum,” he said.