THINK ON THESE: Endangered coral reefs

THINK ON THESE by Henrylito D. Tacio“We recognize that science is pivotal in shaping plans, policies and programs for coral reefs and associated ecosystems. It is thus imperative that we continue to support scientists and provide investment to generate more relevant researches.”

That was what Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu” Cimatu said in his speech at the closing of the recent Fourth Asia-Pacific Coral Reef Symposium (APCRS) that was attended by 600 scientists and researchers from 34 countries who champion coral reef research and conservation in the Asia-Pacific region.

Cimatu also suggested of creating a regional platform not just for sharing of ideas, but a “community bound with a common vision and passion for the environment and for the ocean.”

As he himself pointed out: “Let us work hand in hand in order to translate all of these research outputs, studies, knowledge and experiences into implementable policies and programs.”

The call for protection and conservation of coral reefs is nothing new.  I have attended at least three International Coral Reef Symposiums that were held in Bali (Indonesia), Fort Lauderdale (in Florida, United States), and Cairns, Australia.

The Philippines is part of the so-called Coral Triangle, which contains nearly 73,000 square kilometers of coral reefs – that’s 29% of the global total.  Aside from the Philippines, it also includes Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste.

Spanning the marine waters of insular Southeast Asia and the western Pacific, the Coral Triangle is recognized as the global center of marine biological diversity.  It has the highest coral diversity in the world (76% of all coral species) as well as the highest diversity of coral reef fishes in the world (37% of all species).

“The health and livelihoods of approximately 240 million people in the region are currently sustained by the significant biodiversity and ecosystems of the Coral Triangle,” said a statement released by the Australian Government Support Plan for the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security.  “It is a source of food, income, and protection from severe weather events.  The ongoing health of these ecosystems is critical for the people of the region.”

“No other marine area on Earth matches the Coral Triangle for biodiversity, economic productivity, and beauty,” said Suseno Sukoyono, then the executive chair of the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security.  “We must not take these precious natural gifts for granted, and we must take action now so that we may give them to our children.”

The magnificent area, often called the “Amazon of the Seas,” is facing a number of serious threats and degradation of coral reefs is now widespread.  “Some threats are highly visible and occur directly on reefs,” said Reefs at Risk Revisited in the Coral Triangle, a publication published by the Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI).

“Although coral reefs have always been subject to natural disturbances – disease, predator outbreaks, and climatic disruptions such as hurricanes and the El Niño – natural damage is now being compounded by human-induced disturbances,” noted Coral Reefs: Valuable but Vulnerable, a discussion paper circulated by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The WWF publication gives us some insights on how coral reefs are formed: “Coral reefs are built by tiny individual coral animals called polyps.  Each polyp secretes a cup-shaped limestone skeleton in which it sits.  Most polyps subdivide as they grow and form complex coral colonies made up of millions of polyps, fused together by their skeletons.

“The ability of such tiny animals to form such enormous masses of limestone is due largely to minute, single-celled plants called zooxanthellae that live within the coral tissue.  Like all plants, the zooxanthellae use energy from the sun to photosynthesize and make food for themselves.  However, they also produce food for the coral polyps, and therefore speed up the process of skeleton formation.”

The coral reef is the world’s most diverse marine ecosystem, and one of its most productive.  It is home to some 4,000 species of fish (approximately one-quarter of all marine fish species), along with a vast array of other life forms – mollusks, crustaceans, sea urchins, starfish, sponges, tube-worms and many more.  “There are perhaps one million species in a habitat that covers a total of about 250,000 square kilometers (roughly the area of the United Kingdom),” said the WRI report.

Dynamic and highly productive, coral reefs are not only a critical habitat for numerous species, but also provide essential ecosystem services upon which millions of people depend.

More than 275 million people globally live very close to reefs.  “Within the countries of the Coral Triangle Region, the proportion of people who depend on coral reefs is much higher,” said the WRI report.

In the Philippines, for instance, more than 40 million people live on the coast within 30 kilometers of coral reef, which represents about 45 percent of the country’s population.  Approximately, two million people depend on fisheries for employment, with about one million small-scale fishermen directly dependent on reef fisheries.  The country’s reefs yield 5 to 37 tons of fish per square kilometer, making them very important to the productivity of fisheries.

Now, you know why we need to protect our endangered coral reefs?