CORAL reefs are the marine equivalent of rainforests and considered one of the planet’s essential life-support systems.  These “biological wonders,” as environmental author Don Hinrichsen calls them, are among the largest and oldest living communities of plants and animals on earth, having evolved between 200 and 450 million years ago.

“Today, most established coral reefs are between 5,000 and 10,000 years old; many of them forming thin veneers over older, much thicker reef struc­tures,” said Hinrichsen, who has explored coral reefs around the world for his recent book on coastal ecosystem.

Coral reefs are constructed by millions of flower-like animals with tube-like body and finger-like tentacles called polyps.  The form of polyp, which is about the size of a fingernail (one centimeter to three centimeters), depends on the shape and form of the coral.  A coral may be a single large polyp.  Near the sea’s surface where waves have a strong effect, corals are massive.  As they occur in deeper water, they become branched or take on flowery forms.

Marine experts claim it takes centuries to create a reef.  The coral’s skeletons amass to form the foundation of a reef.  The stony structures grow slowly, normally at a rate of 0.25 centimeters to 0.5 centimeters a year.

The coral polyps are helped by microscopic plants – algae – which live inside them, providing food in exchange for shelter.  Like any plant, the algae need sunlight to power their activities.  Coral reefs are thus typically found in clear, shallow water.

“Corals vary enormously in size, shape and color – from the delicate filigree of the sea fan and the branching ‘antlers’ of the staghorn coral, to the bulging brain coral, which looks like a huge disembodied human brain,” Hinrichsen said.  “There are button corals, fire corals, lace corals, bead corals, organ-pipe corals and vase corals, all of which resemble their name­sakes – over 600 species in all.”

Most of the reefs are found in the tropics of Cancer and Capri­corn – in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and South Pacific.  They also thrive where warm currents are found off Florida, Bermuda, south­ern Japan and Australia.  The richest reefs, however, are located in the region bounded by Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Because of their structure, coral reefs serve as shelter to fishes and shell fishes.  In fact, 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.

About four million small-scale fishers – a third of all subsistence fishers – rely on reefs for their livelihood and nutrition.  Reefs are the source of up to 90 percent of the animal protein by Pacific islanders and 25 percent of that consumed in Southeast Asia.

For centuries, coastal communities have used reef plants and animals for their medicinal properties.  In the Philippines, giant clams are eaten as a malaria treatment.  Chemicals from sea sponges have been used in developing a new drug, Ara-C, used to treat herpes and some cancers.  Other reef organisms produce chemicals useful for AIDS research.  Kalinic acid is reportedly collected from reef organisms in Japan and Taiwan; the chemical is used to investigate Huntington’s chorea, a fatal disease of the nervous system.

Other coral chemicals have proved useful in research on arthritis and asthma.  Australian researchers have developed a sun cream from a coral chemical that contains a natural “factor 50” sunblock.

Another benefit of coral reefs is that they attract tourists who contribute to a country’s commerce.  Globally, coastal tourism is the largest sector of the US$250 billion tourism industry, which is projected to be the world’s biggest industry by the turn of the century.

But most importantly, coral reefs and mangroves protect the country’s shoreline from erosion by wind and waves.  Without these natural protective barriers, says a paper from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), “the country’s shore­lines would be continuously battered and eroded, especially during storms.”

The Philippines, touted to be the “Pearl of the Orient Seas,” holds one of the most extensive coral reefs in the world with a sprawling area of 27,000 square kilometers strategically located in Palawan (37.8%), Sulu (27.8%), Visayas (21.7%), Northern Luzon (7.6%), Central and Southern Mindanao (3.2%), and the Turtle Islands (1.7%).

Of all coral species known in the world, more than a quarter are found in the country.  Unfortunately, only 400 of these species remain, according to the Center for Environmental Concern.

“A dive into the depths of Samal reef gardens will reveal colorful underwater vistas with its treasure of tropical marine life,” informs Darrel Blatchley, an American who now lives in Davao City and had had plunged into the bottom of the Davao Gulf a couple of years back.  “Unfortunately, some of those colorful corals are not in good shape.”

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

Despite the alarm sounded in the late 1970s by the East-West Center in Hawaii, coral reef destruction is still common in the Philippines.  At that time, the study disclosed that more than half of the reefs were “in advanced states of destruction.”  Only about 25 % of live coral cover were reported to be in good condition, while only 5% were in excellent condition.

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

Dr. Robert Ginsburg, a specialist on coral reefs working with the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, said man has 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.

Dr. Edgardo Gomez, one of the country’s respected marine scientists, agrees.  “If asked what the major problem of coral reefs is, my reply would be ‘The pressure of human popula­tions,’” he asserted.

A visit to any fishing village near a reef will quickly confirm this, he pointed out.  “There are just too many fisher­men.  They overfish the reefs, and even if they use nondestruc­tive fishing gear, they still stress the coral reef ecosystem,” Dr. Gomez deplored.

Meanwhile, experts are urging Filipinos to save whatever remaining coral reefs the country has.

“Rebuilding the reefs will take far longer than the two to three decades it has taken to destroy them,” reminds marine ecologist Terence Hughes, of the James Cook University in Townsville, Jamaica.