ASSESSING THE STATUS OF ENDANGERED CORAL REEFS

Archipelago, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a sea or stretch of water having many islands.”  The word could have been invented for the Philippines: 7,107 islands strewn across 2,200,000 square kilometers of ocean.

It’s no wonder that images of dreamy beaches and crystal waters dominate the perception of foreigners of the country that is touted as “Pearl of the Orient Seas.”  Beneath the waves of its coastal waters is an Eden-like vista.

There are three major types of coral reefs, according to Dr. Angel C. Alcala, former head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).  These are fringing type (those found on the edges of islands and which constitutes 30% of the country’s coral reefs); the barrier type (best exemplified by the Dajanon Reef of Central Visayas); and the atoll (of which the Tubbataha and Cagayan Reef in the Sulu Sea are ideal examples).

Touted to be “the rainforests of the ocean,” coral reefs are one of the greatest natural treasures.  “A single reef may contain 3,000 species of corals, fish, and shellfish,” says Dr. Miguel D. Fortes, a marine biologist and the first Filipino to receive the International Biwako Prize for Ecology.

An estimated 10% to 15% of the total fisheries in the Philippines come from coral reefs. About 80% to 90% of the income of small island communities come from fisheries. “Coral reef fish yields range from 20-25 metric tons per square kilometer per year for healthy reefs,” Alcala said.

The Philippines is home to over 400 local species of corals, which is more than what 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 World Atlas of Coral Reefs reported that 97% of reefs in the country 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.

In 2007, Reef Check – an international organization assessing the health of reefs in 82 countries – stated that only five percent 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.

Today, what is the current status of the country’s coral reefs?  “Like all natural resources, our coral reefs must be monitored and assessed regularly,” wrote Laurence M. San Pedro in an article published in S&T Post of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).

These could be done by using tools for coral reefs visualization.  “Having accurate information can guide coastal resource managers and marine ecologists to put up measures to conserve the reefs,” San Pedro wrote.

In the past, rapid reef assessments were done by a technique called “manta tow.”  Although it gives a closer view of the underwater environment, it is labor intensive (requires special training) and expensive (because of the use of scuba equipment and waterproof cameras).

Those hassles can be corrected by using the Automated Rapid Reef Assessment System (ARRAS).  DOST funded the program that developed some tools which would ease and hasten the assessment of coral reefs.

There are two projects that comprised the ARRAS program: the Multi-Sensor Reef Assessment headed by Dr. Cesar L. Villanoy of the University of the Philippine (UP) Marine Science Institute, and the Coral Reef Assessment and Visualization headed by Dr. Maricor N. Soriano of the UP Diliman’s National Institute of Physics.

San Pedro reported that within just three years, “the ARRAS program was able to create three technologically mature tools for fast and cost-efficient monitoring of coral reefs.”

During the Third National Research and Development Conference, Dr. Soriano pointed out: “So our solutions are the banca-towable platforms, a stitching software, and kite aerial photography.  These are easy to use, easy to repair, and we hope that communities can use these.”

San Pedro gave some insights on how these tools are used to make rapid and frequent surveys of the reefs.  Actually, there are two types of banca-towable platforms: “Teardrop” and “Towpedo.”  Both use motor engine-powered small boats (banca) that can hold an underwater camera and echo sounder.

“The Teardrop can house a waterproof video camera and other sensors,” San Pedro explained.  “With an attached underwater camera inside, the Teardrop is a diverless video-transacting tool for capturing coral reefs on video.  On the other hand, Towpedo is a neutrally buoyant, torpedo-shaped platform that can reach a depth of 30 meters below water and can also capture videos underwired with an attached underwater camera.”

Both platforms are diverless, which means capturing video of the reef can run continuously as long as there is ambient light and spare batteries for the camera.

In addition, the researches also promoted the use of kites instead of drones.  “Through kite aerial photography, aerial shots of shallow reefs can be easily taken,” San Pedro reported.  “Kite aerial photography is suited in places where the wind is strong.  Once the kite is observed to be stable, an action camera is attached to the kite line using a pendulum which limit the sway of the camera and reduce motion blur.”

So far, the research team has already covered 2,000 kilometers out of the 10,000-kilometer coastlines with reefs across the country.

“Let us work hand in hand to bring back the health of our ocean, the coral reefs, and the entire marine ecosystem to its once pristine and abundant condition so that marine life will not lose its home, our marine biodiversity will remain sustainable, and both the present and future generations will continue to benefit from our natural resources,” Senator Loren Legarda once reminded.

Fish, like rice, is the staple food of Filipinos.  Each one consumes almost 30 kilograms of seafood per year.  “Almost 55% of the fish consumed by Filipinos depends on coral reefs; 10-15% of the total marine fisheries production comes from the coral reefs,” Fortes said.

As coral reefs continue to deteriorate, fish and other marine life cannot be as productive as they were before.  “This will have a domino effect,” the International Marinelife Alliance-Philippines warned.  “Fishermen will have fewer catch and lower income and there will be less fish and marine products for everyone.”

In fact, fisheries production was down by 8.7% from five million metric tons in 2010 to 4.7 metric tons in 2015, according to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, a line agency of the Department of Agriculture.

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

The Philippine government has made and introduced many laws in an attempt to protect the natural environment on the islands and in the national territorial waters.   But the government cannot do it alone; help from individuals are also needed to save the reefs from total annihilation.

“We are the stewards of our nation’s resources,” said Rafael D. Guerrero III, former executive director of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development, “we should take care of our national heritage so that future generations can enjoy them.  Let’s do our best to save our coral reefs. Our children’s children will thank us for the effort.”