Philippines coral reefs 'slowly dying'

Posted: 10 July 2008

Nearly all of the ecologically-fragile coral reefs in the Philippines are under severe threat from economic development and climate change, according to an update circulated by the Southeast Asian Centre of Excellence (SEA CoE). Henrylito Tacio reports from the 11th International Coral Reef Symposium, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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 per cent 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.

Coral damage caused by boat anchors, Philppines© Ken Bura
Coral damage caused by boat anchors, Philppines© Ken Bura
Coral damage caused by boat anchors, Philppines© Ken Bura
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.

Unknowingly, coral reefs - touted to be the tropical rainforest of the sea - 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.

Unfortunately, these beautiful coral reefs are now at serious risk from degradation. According to scientists, 70 per cent of the world's coral reefs may be lost by 2050. In the Philippines, coral reefs have been slowly dying over the past 30 years.

Deforestation adjacent to reefs increases sedimentation. Palawan, Philippines©   Lambert A.B. Meñez/ReefBase
Deforestation adjacent to reefs increases sedimentation. Palawan, Philippines© Lambert A.B. Meñez/ReefBase
Deforestation adjacent to reefs increases sedimentation. Palawan, Philippines© Lambert A.B. Meñez/ReefBase
The World Atlas of Coral Reefs, compiled by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), reported that 97 per cent 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 per cent 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 kilometre per year for healthy reefs," said Angel C. Alcala, former environment secretary.

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 Ramon Magsaysay Award.

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.

Estimates show that if the present rapid population growth and declining trend in fish production continue, only 10 kilogrammes of fish will be available per Filipino per year by 2010, as opposed to 28.5 kilogrammes per year in 2003.