Philippine coasts in deep trouble

Posted: 6 July 2004

Author: Henrylito D. Tacio

The Philippines, touted to be the Pearl of the Orient Seas, has more than 7,000 islands with a total coastline of 18,417 kilometres. But now, under pressure from a fast-growing coastal population and inappropriate development, its marine ecology is threatened as never before.

Eighty per cent of the provinces and two-thirds of the municipalities and cities share the sea coasts. As such, the coastal environment has played a significant formative role in the country's traditional way of life, as well as in its social and economic development.

Denuded mangroves, The Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Denuded mangroves, The Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Denuded mangroves, The Philippines.© Henrylito Tacio
Unfortunately, the coastal nature of Philippine demography has resulted in an ever-increasing multiplicity of demands on the marine habitats, causing extensive undesirable alterations in coral reefs, sea grass beds, and mangroves.

"We can reasonably expect that these alterations would persist simply because the Filipinos continue to need wood and products from mangroves, fish from reefs, and waste disposal in vegetated waters," said Dr Miguel D. Fortes, a professor of marine science from the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City.

In 1918, the country's mangrove forests were estimated to cover 5,000 square kilometres. By 1970, they had dwindled to 2,880 square kilometresand to 2,420 square kilometres a decade later. Recent estimates indicate that mangroves cover only 1,397.25 square kilometres.

Desolate shoreline

"All over the country, whatever coastal province you visit, you see the same plight - desolate stretches of shoreline completely stripped ofmangrove cover and now totally exposed to the pounding of the ocean's waves," said Dr Fortes, the first Filipino to receive the prestigiousInternational Biwako Prize for Ecology.

In the Philippines, mangrove forests are composed of 97 species of trees, many of them commercially important. For centuries, mangroves have beenused by Filipinos for food, forage for animals, building materials, fuel, folk medicine, and various other purposes. In fact, Manila was originally named Maynilad (meaning, "there is nilad") after a mangrove species known locally as "nilad" and found extensively in the Pasig River delta.

Mangrove forests have been cut down for their valuable timber and tannin (mangrove barks are the greatest single source of tanning materials in the country). Large areas of mangroves have been converted into fishponds. The construction of tourism infrastructures has also contributed to the rapid disappearance of mangroves.

Environmentalists are very worried about the further denudation of mangrove forests. "At the current rate of decline, nothing may remain ofour mangroves," they claimed.

This is an alarming prospect as mangroves are home to 68 species of fish including bangus," "kitan," and mullet, to name a few), 54 species of crustaceans (shrimps, prawns, and crabs), and 56 species of gastropods.

"Fish use the spaces under the mass of prop roots of mangrove trees as 'delivery rooms,' and the offspring of many marine species spend theirgrowing period in the mangrove swamps before moving on to the open said," explained Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, executive director of the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development (PCAMRD).

Fisheries associated with mangrove forests, much of it collected by the poorest of the poor, contribute some 0.67 tons per hectare of mangroveforest per year to total fisheries, according to the PCAMRD head.

Coral treasures

Environmentalists have also voiced fears that the next generations may no longer see coral reefs in their pristine beauty. Coral reefs are among theoldest and richest communities of plants and animals. They may either fringe a land mass (called fringing reefs), occur some distance out to the sea (barrier reefs), or be isolated in deep water, forming a ring with a central shallow lagoon (atoll).

"One of the greatest natural treasures, they are habitats for rare species, including some 488 species of corals, 971 species of benthic algae, and 2,000 species of fish," says Dr. Fortes. "A single reef may contain 3,000 species of corals, fish, and shellfish."

Sea turtle caught in the Philippines.  The species is highly endangered. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Sea turtle caught in the Philippines. The species is highly endangered. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Sea turtle caught in the Philippines. The species is highly endangered.© Henrylito Tacio
The Philippines is estimated to have about 27,000 square kilometers of coral reefs within a 15- to 30-meter depth. Despite the alarm sounded inthe late 1970s by the East-West Center in Hawaii, coral reef destruction in still rampant in the country. At that time, about 70 per cent of these reefs were considered to be in poor or fair condition, and only five per cent were in excellent condition. Nothing much had changed since then.

Dr. Angel C. Alcala, former head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), said that good to excellent coral reefs could produce 20 tons or more of fish and other edible products per square kilometre per year. Once destroyed, they produce less than four tons per square kilometre per year. The sustainable catch from a good reef over 10 years is about 200 tons of fish while that from a destroyed reef is only 72 tons.

The Philippines is home to over 400 local species of corals, more than is found in the famous Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Unfortunately, most of these species are now gone and others are facing extinction. "Nowhere else in the world are coral reefs abused as much as the reefs in the Philippines," deplores Don E. McAllister of the Ocean Voice International.

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," said Prof. Porfirio M. Alino, also a marine biologist from the University of the Philippines.

Sea grasses

Destructive fishing methods - ranging from dynamite blasts to cyanide poisons - are destroying vast areas of reef. Fishermen blast reefs with dynamite to stun the fish. When fish float to the surface, fishermen scoop up large quantities at once. Heavily dynamited reefs produce only 2.7 to 5 metric tons per square kilometre per year compared to 30 metric tons forhealthy reefs.

On cyanide fishing, the late Jacques-Yves Consteau condemned: "These practices are criminal. They attack the natural productive environment which allows the renewal of marine resources. Destroying coral today is destroying tomorrow's fishes." (He issued this statement after visiting Palawan to examine reefs destroyed by cyanide fishing.)

The relentless razing of the coral reefs also threatens to destroy a related but less known ecosystem, that of sea grass. Fishers and beachresort owners often tear away sea grass, considering it as nuisance. But like corals, sea grass is rich breeding and feeding ground of marine species.

Among the major species found in seagrass beds are shrimps, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, crabs, scallops, mussels and snails. The sea cow or "dugong," an endangered sea mammal, is almost completely seagrass-dependent.

Dr. Anitra Thorhaug, an international expert on seagrasses, has lamented that in the Philippines much effort has been placed on quantifying andmanaging corals and mangroves, which form the outer and inner edges of the country's coastal habitats.

"The whole central portion from low tide to the reef is inhabited by seagrasses, yet corals and mangroves have reserved areas (while) seagrasses have) none," Dr. Thorhaug pointed out.

Recent studies have shown the country has lost from 30 to 50 per cent of its seagrasses in the past 50 years.

The Philippines has the second highest number of seagrass species in the world - 16 of the 40 seagrass species worldwide.

According to marine experts, the rapid disappearance of seagrasses in the Philippine waters has been due to the multiple demands of a growing population on the country's marine environment, as a source of food, recreation and aesthetic enjoyment, avenues of transportation, receptacles of waste and living space.

The seagrasses ecosystem is also adversely affected by the mining of industrial minerals: oil spills caused by accidents, operational shipping and refinery activities, dredging and illegal fishing, and pollution.

"Too much is taken from the sea," says Dr. Patricia Morse of Boston's Northwestern University. "Too much is dumped into it."

Future Filipino generations may wonder: "Where have all our coastal resources gone?"

Henrylito Tacio is an award-winning Filipino journalist who hails from Davao del Sur. He received the Journalist of the Year award in 1999 and was elevated to the Hall of Fame in science reporting in 1998. He is People & the Planet correspondent in Southeast Asia.

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Philippines on verge of ecological disaster