THINK ON THESE: We’re losing our coral reefs

“The world has lost roughly half its coral reefs in the last 30 years.”

That’s sad news came from the dispatch released by Associated Press.

“Scientists are now scrambling to ensure that at least a fraction of these unique ecosystems survives beyond the next three decades,” the report added.

Why I said it’s sad news? The reason is self-explanatory: the health of our planet depends on this ecologically-fragile ecosystem.

Coral reefs, which are described as “Eden beneath the waves,” support a quarter of all marine species, as well as half a billion people around the world.

And they are fast disappearing from this planet.

“This isn’t something that’s going to happen 100 years from now. We’re losing them right now,” said marine biologist Julia Baum of Canada’s University of Victoria. “We’re losing them really quickly, much more quickly than I think any of us ever could have imagined.”

Even in the Philippines, home to more than 7,000 islands, coral reefs are not spared from extinction.

Our country has about 27,000 square kilometers of coral reefs. Two-thirds of them are in Palawan (the country’s last frontier) and Sulu Archipelago.

Of the almost 700 coral species known to man, 500 of these can be found in our country. But only 400 of these remain, according to the Center for Environmental Concern.

Yes, we are losing our coral reefs.

A survey conducted in 1991-1992 by the Regional Fishermen’s Training Center in Panabo, Davao del Norte at Sarangani Bay and Davao Gulf had shown that most of the shallow or inshore coral reefs “were totally damaged because they are exposed to greater pressure.”

As early as 1970s, the East-West Center in Hawaii had already sounded the alarm. At that time, the study disclosed that more than half of the reefs in the country were “in advanced states of destruction.”

The same study reported that only about 25% were considered to be “in good condition” while only 5% were “in excellent condition.”

Nothing much have changed since then. In truth, the destruction of this vital Philippine resource is getting worse, as recent studies have shown.

“Nowhere else in the world are coral reefs abused as much as the reefs in the Philippines,” commented marine scientist Don C. McAllister, who once studied the cost of coral reef destruction in the country.

Sedimentation, resulting from human activities, is said to be the most important single cause of reef degradation. These activities include unsound agricultural and forestry practices, mismanagement of watersheds, exploitation of mangroves, earthmoving for construction and dumping of terrestrial and marine mine tailings.

Destructive fishing methods – like the use of dynamite and cyanide fishing – also contributed to the rapid disappearance of the country’s coral reefs. The kayakas and muro-ami have further annihilated these “tropical rainforests of the sea.”

Coral collection is another culprit. Corals are gathered and sold as part of the international trade of reef products. Despite laws banning coral gathering, many people still break off and collect corals to sell as decorative items, construction materials and for other purposes.

Aside from human activities, there are some natural causes like extremely low tide, high temperature of surface water, predation and the mechanical action of currents and waves.

In recent years, coral reefs are exhibiting a new kind of degradation: coral bleaching.

Actually, “corals are invertebrates, living mostly in tropical waters,” the AP report said. “They secrete calcium carbonate to build protective skeletons that grow and take on impressive colors, thanks to a symbiotic relationship with algae that live in their tissues and provide them with energy.”

According to marine scientists, a temperature change of just 1 to 2 degrees Celsius can force coral to expel the algae, leaving their white skeletons visible in a process known as “bleaching.”

The Philippines experienced two major bleaching events: in 1998 and then in 2010. The latter affected 95% of the country’s coral reefs.

“Bleached coral can recover if the water cools, but if high temperatures persist for months, the coral will die,” the AP report said. “Eventually the reef will degrade, leaving fish without habitats and coastlines less protected from storm surges.”

Coral reefs produce about four times more fish per unit area compared to the coastal trawl fisheries, some studies have shown. Fish, it must be pointed out, provide more than half of the protein requirements of Filipinos.

There are three types of coral reefs, according to Dr. Angel C. Alcala, former environment secretary. These are the fringing types (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 Reefs in the Sulu Sea are ideal examples).

These coral reefs must be protected at all cost.

“To lose coral reefs is to fundamentally undermine the health of a very large proportion of the human race,” said Ruth Gates, director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

After all, coral reefs produce some of the oxygen we breathe.

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