THINK ON THESE : Let’s protect our coral reefs

I am not sure if most Filipinos are aware of the importance of coral reefs. But I think only very few know the relevance of these endangered species. In fact, most of them don’t care if they are destroyed.

So much so that there is a lack of updated information on the present status of our coral reefs. The most recent study – the Nationwide Assessment of Philippine Coral Reefs – was published in the Philippine Journal of Science in 2017.

“Reefs sampled (in the study) were randomly selected from around the country, with the number of assessment stations for each of six biogeographic regions stratified by the total area of reefs in each of these regions,” wrote Rosemarie C. Señora in S&T Post, the quarterly publication of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). “For two years, 166 reefs have been sampled.”

Based on live coral cover, more than 90% of the sampled reefs are in the “poor” and “fair” categories. “So far, the mean hard coral cover of the country at 22% is comparable with that of the Indo-Pacific region, but much lower than previous estimates for the Philippines,” Señora noted.

“The Philippines has 22,500 square kilometers of coral reef area, which represents 9 percent of the global total, making it the country with the third-largest reef area in the world (after Australia and Indonesia),” notes Reefs at Risk Revisited in the Coral Triangle, which was released during the 12th International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns, Australia some years back.

“All major reef types are present in the Philippines; most are fringing reefs along the coastlines, as well as some area of barrier, atoll, and patch reefs,” says the Washington-based World Resources Institute. In addition, the country is home to 464 species of hard corals.

Studying coral reefs is essential to the economy of the Philippines as they provide for the ecotourism. According to Dr. Patrick C. Cabaitan, associate professor at the Marine Science Institute of University of the Philippines at Diliman, scientific intervention is an important tool in coral production.

“Corals reproduce through asexual and sexual means but sex is not enough for the corals,” he said and suggested that researchers or anyone who is interested in studying corals should pursue basic science to understand reefs; consider other ecological processes in conducting reef restoration efforts, and integrate restoration with management efforts.

Coral reefs are considered underwater forests because of their complex ecosystem that supports a huge amount of wildlife. They serve as shelter to fishes and other marine creatures like molluscs, crustaceans, sea urchins, starfish, sponges, and tube-worms, to name a few. 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 are as the open sea. In the Philippines, the reefs reportedly yield 5 to 37 tons of fish per square kilometer, thus making them very important to the productivity of fisheries.

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.

In the Philippines, the seas supply more than 80% of the animal protein of the Filipino public, said Ramon Paje when he was the head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). More than 60% of the country’s 96 million population live on the coast within 30 kilometers of coral reefs.

The destruction of coral reefs has dramatically declined fish catch in the country. “We admit that there has been a decline in our local fisheries because of destructive fishing methods and overfishing,” said Director Asis Perez of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

For centuries, coastal communities have used reef plants and animals for their medicinal properties. In the Philippines, for instance, giant clams are eaten as a malaria treatment.

“Many coral reef species produce chemicals like histamines and antibiotics used in medicine and science,” reports The Nature Conservancy, an organization whose mission is to preserve plants, animals and natural communities by protecting the lands and waters needed for their survival.

“Unique medicinal properties of coral reef organisms were recognized by Eastern cultures as early as the 14th century, and some species continue to be in high demand for traditional medicines,” observes Dr. Andrew Bruckner, a coral reef ecologist in the US National Marine Fisheries Service’s Office of Protected Resources in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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

“Our coasts and seas have suffered heavy degradation wrought by over half a century of destructive practices,” pointed out Dr. Theresa Mundita Lim, when she was still the head of DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau.

Recent studies show that overfishing remained the major threat to coral reefs in the Philippines, but pollution from various sources is also growing at an alarming rate.

“These include inappropriate land use practices, irresponsible mining practices, deforestation or illegal logging activities, improper waste disposal, etc. There was also considerable growth in coastal development manifested by the increase in coastal populations, built-up areas, and urbanization,” reported Dr. Lim.

So, how can coral reefs be saved from completely vanishing in Philippine waters? “The only way to save coral reefs from extinction and restore their productivity is to limit access to them,” suggests Dr. Edgardo D. Gomez, a world-renowned marine scientist who has published extensively on coral reef resource management and ecology. “This is no mean task, but it seems it is the only means we can save our coral reefs from disappearing in this part of the world.”

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