ENVIRONMENT : COASTAL ECOSYSTEMS ON THE BRINK (First of Three Parts)

More than 50 million Filipinos are dependent on fish for food, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. In addition, almost three million people are employed in the fisheries sector.

Fish, it is said, provides more than half of the protein requirement of Filipinos. In recent years, the average annual consumption of Filipinos has declined considerably – from 37 kilos before to just 30 kilos these days.

“We are running out of fish and running out of time. For a country known for marine biodiversity, there are very few fish left to catch,” deplored Vince Cinches, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

One reason why fish is dwindling in this part of the world is due to the destruction of its coastal ecosystems: home of mangroves, coral reefs and seagrasses. Unless Filipinos help protect and manage these ecosystems, the country may don’t have fish to feed its growing population.

“Like the other vital resources such as forests, Philippine fisheries are about to collapse – a victim of the almost unabated plunder of the commons,” deplores Roy C. Alimoane, the director of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC).

As defined, the “commons” encompasses unoccupied land and all waters which are considered God-given set of resources for all people to consume as much as needed. In Genesis 1:29, God said: “They will be yours for food.”

Most people think of tropical forests as those found in the uplands and mountains only. What they don’t know that they also exist in the lowlands and near seashores. And they are called mangroves.

Mangroves grow well in tropical countries, including the Philippines. “Mangroves are an important part of the coastal and marine ecosystem that includes the seagrasses and the coral reefs,” reports the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Actually, mangroves are communities of trees in the tidal flats in coastal waters, extending inland along rivers where the water is tidal, saline, or brackish. “There are 25 to 30 species of true mangrove trees and an equal number of associated species,” says Dr. Miguel Fortes, a professor of Marine Science Institute at the College of Science of University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City.

Dr. Theresa Mundita Lim, director of the Biodiversity Management Bureau, says its agency has identified 42 species of mangroves in the country. None of them are facing extinction yet. But the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is considering of putting 11 out of 70 mangrove species assessed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Mangroves are very important to marine life, says Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, former head of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development. They serve as sanctuaries and feeding grounds for fish that nibble on detritus (fallen and decaying leaves) trapped in the vegetation, and on the bark and leaves of living trees.

“(Mangroves) are important feeding sites for many commercially important fish species (mullet, tilapia, eel, and especially milkfish), shrimps, prawns, mollusks, crabs, and sea cucumbers,” a World Bank report on environment adds. “Fry that gather in mangrove areas are very important for aquaculture.”

But there’s more to mangroves than just fishery. “Healthy mangroves regulate floods, control erosion, recycle nutrients, and trap sediments,” said Dr. Jurgenne Honculada-Primavera, who received a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, for working “toward conserving mangroves through formal education and local governance.

“Mangroves also have cultural-historical significance,” she added. “The premier Philippine city of Manila or Maynila owes its name to the species Scyphiphora hydrophyllacea, locally called nilad, which grew abundantly along Manila Bay and the river Pasig in pre-Hispanic times.”

Unknowingly, mangroves also help protect people and even properties from destruction brought about by typhoons. Moises Neil V. Seriño, assistant professor of the Department of Economics at the Visayas State University, found this out after he and co-researchers conducted a study on the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.

“Our study shows that mangrove vegetation reduced the number of deaths and damaged houses during the Yolanda incident,” Seriño said. “This property and lifesaving effects of mangrove is robust. Mangroves can protect us (our lives, livelihood and properties) from damaging effects of typhoons.”

Mangroves can also help offset the consequences of climate change. After all, they store more carbon than almost any other forest on Earth, surmised the findings which was published online in the journal Nature Geoscience.

“Mangroves have long been known as extremely productive ecosystems that cycle carbon quickly, but until now there had been no estimate of how much carbon resides in these systems. That’s essential information because when land-use change occurs, much of that standing carbon stock can be released to the atmosphere,” says Daniel Donato, a postdoctoral research ecologist at the Pacific Southwest Research Station in Hilo, Hawaii.

The research team examined the carbon content of 25 mangrove forests across the Indo-Pacific region and found that mangrove forests, per hectare, store “up to four times more carbon than most other tropical forests around the world.”

The Science Daily gives this bit of information: “The mangrove forest’s ability to store such large amounts of carbon can be attributed, in part, to the deep organic-rich soils in which it thrives. Mangrove-sediment carbon stores were on average five times larger than those typically observed in temperate, boreal and tropical terrestrial forests, on a per-unit-area basis.”

The country’s remaining coastal mangroves have to be protected and conserved if those living the shorelines have to survive. “Climate change is occurring now and will intensify in the next few decades, threatening in particular developing nations, with Philippines being one of the most vulnerable countries in the world,” said the World Bank report, Getting a Grip on Climate Change in the Philippines.

According to the bank report, the Philippines is “already experiencing temperature increases; sea level rise; stronger storms, floods, and droughts; and ocean acidification, all of which will intensify and affect subsistence livelihoods as well as urban and coastal areas.” – (To be continued)