In January 2013 the minesweeper USS Guardian ran aground on Tubbataha Reef in Sulu Sea in Mindanao, scraping off about 2,345 square meters of corals.
The US Navy, not spared from repercussions, had to pay in full to the Philippine government after two years the damage to the corals caused by its ship. It paid around P87 million (equivalent to $1.87 million) in 2014 based on the computation of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), slightly higher than the earlier assessed penalty.
Through the Bro. Alfred Shields Ocean Research Center (ShORe) of the De La Salle University (DLSU), the team, led by Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan, mapped out the damage of USS Guardian to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization-declared World Heritage Site.
It was the worst damage on record on the protected reef. However, Licuanan told the BusinessMirror that after five years, “you will no longer notice the damage caused by the USS Guardian [in Tubbataha].”
ShORe story: Philippine coral reefs system check
The Philippines is considered a mega-diversity country. It is rivaled only by a few countries in the world owing to its variety of ecosystems, species and genetic resources, according to the DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau.
However, the country is also considered a biodiversity hot spot because it continues to experience an alarming rate of destruction of these important resources caused by overexploitation, deforestation, land degradation, climate change and pollution, among others.
The center of the center of the Coral Triangle is located in Philippine waters, the reason many groups are interested in its research and discovery.
For ShORe, it has a different focus.
The ShORe center is the Shields Ocean Research Center named after Bro. Alfred Shields, an American Christian brother who established the biology department of DLSU. The center has an office at the main campus, while having a marine station in Batangas.
The ShORe exists also to manage externally funded projects that involve coral reef assessment. It was once part of a big program under the Department of Science and technology (DOST) from 2014 to 2017, “to undertake a nationwide assessment of coral reefs.”
What Licuanan and his team learned after assessing fringing coral reefs was alarming.
Its paper, published in the Philippine Journal of Science, titled “Initial Findings of the Nationwide Assessment of Philippine Coral Reefs,” resulted from data gathered from 2015 to 2017 from over 166 stations, including 108 in Luzon, 31 in the Visayas and 27 in Mindanao.
The research found that “none of these [coral reefs] were classified in the excellent category based on live coral cover, and more than 90 percent of the same station were in poor and fair categories.”
Excellent reefs are determined when the live coral cover of the reef is at least 75 percent, while a reef is categorized as good when its live coral cover is at least 50 percent to 75 percent.
Fair corals have 25 percent to 50 percent of living corals, and poor when it is below 25 percent.
A live coral reef is the total of the hard corals and the soft corals.
ShORe center focused on fringing reefs. Licuanan explained during the interview that fringing reefs are “attached to land. We focused on these because they are the ones that are damaged first.”
For comparison, the first-ever nationwide coral-reef assessment in 1981 done by National Scientists Dr. Edgardo Gomez and Dr. Angel Alcala showed that only 34 out of 619 stations were considered as “excellent” and over 434 stations were in “poor” and “fair” condition based on their data gathered from 1976 to 1981.
“In just 40 years, we lost excellent category reefs,” Licuanan lamented. “We also have numbers that show in the last 20 years, we lost about a third of our corals in fringing reefs in the Philippines.”
Licuanan added that on a projection based on its reef monitoring in Pangasinan, “[they] would lose its corals in 11 years.” The reef is in the north of the famous Hundred Islands.
‘We have done enough damage’
There are a lot of reasons corals and the entire marine ecosystem have declined. Humans have done already so much damage through illegal activities and malpractices, such as overfishing and dynamite fishing.
But there is a far scarier destroyer of the coral reef system, our need to build more than we can imagine, the assessment disclosed.
Monitoring done by the ShORe Center goes up to about 15 feet and they found out that reefs left alive are those which are in the more shallow waters while in the deeper areas, they have slowly died.
“One reason [is due to] the change in water clarity,” Licuanan said.
He explained that because of runoff, coastal development and construction, the corals did not have the chance to proliferate and live longer years to support the fishes. He blamed the Department of Public Works and Highways for this.
“They build roads but they don’t stabilize the hillsides, they don’t stabilize the road cuts. So when heavy rain comes, the runoff goes to the sea, which brings nutrients and makes the water cloudy.”
When water clarity becomes poor, it blocks the UV light the corals need to photosynthesize and make food. It also adds sediments to the corals and so, “the first corals to go are the ones in deeper areas.”
Coral gardening: Humanity’s need to intervene but to only destroy
“We have a lot of well-meaning people being conned to trying to help the coral reefs through coral gardening,” Licuanan added.
Coral gardening, according to a policy brief by Licuanan’s team, “is currently a popular method used to help speed up the recovery of coral cover on reefs.”
The process involves the breaking of a piece of a coral and planting it somewhere. In the Philippines coral gardening has boomed in 2012. Through government-funded projects, this practice was done in many areas in the country.
However, there’s a big problem with this practice.
In order to fix 1 hectare of reef, you have to damage 47 hectares of reefs.
There are many considerations in coral gardening. First is to determine the source of pieces of reefs and which corals should be used for the practice.
“We have over 500 species of corals and gardening only works for the branching ones, what about the others?” Licuanan asked.
It is also very expensive to do coral gardening. For a hectare, one will need about P6 million, but the amount is also the equivalent annual budget of the Tubbataha Management Office and managing 97,000 hectares.
According to the assessment’s policy brief, “there is high variability of success in previous coral gardening initiatives, with good survival for some areas and very high mortality for others.”
It added: “Successful endeavors have generally been on the small scale of only tens to hundreds of square meters, and the increasing cost of upscaling suggests that large-scale efforts are best avoided in favor of other management options.”
Licuanan asked: “You risk propagating one kind [of corals] at the expense of others. Where is the biodiversity there?”
Nature heals itself; remove the stressors, it heals faster
ShORe Center does an annual monitoring in the Tubbataha. Together with other researchers worldwide who help the Tubbataha Management Office, the center has constantly collected data on the damaged reefs.
“It’s healing itself,” said Licuanan on the 2,345-square-meter damage done by the USS Guardian. The center’s director assured that in about five years, the scar has gone unnoticed as the reef has grown back without any gardening or planting.
“The reef is managed and we removed the stressors that kill the corals,” he said. “This is what Tubbataha [Management Office] is doing.”
Restoration, according to the ShORe Center, is aiding the recovery of a damaged ecosystem and involves two different approaches.
One is passive reef restoration, where it solely relies on the ability of the corals to grow and proliferate. On the other hand, active reef restoration is the direct action done to aid the healing of the reefs, such as “modifying the reef with natural or artificial structures.”
Licuanan recommends to only do active restoration when there is no option left.
“The reef will take care of itself,” he told the BusinessMirror. “The default in ecosystem restoration is to remove the stressors and only implement active restoration with [human] intervention as the last resort.”
The ShORe Center has other projects. Through a recently acquired two-year, P13-million grant from the Discovery-Applied Research and Extension for Trans/Inter-disciplinary Opportunities Research Grant of the Commission on Higher Education, it aims to perform more citizen-science service to the youth.
Its project, Collaboration On Resource Management Among Academe and Local Communities (Coral), is about developing tools so that people can better monitor reefs through the help of youth education and local community.
Through this, the center invited Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Christopher Bernido and his wife, Ma. Victoria, to the project.
“We want [to learn] the innovative techniques of the Bernidos in teaching science to the kids so we can use these [techniques] to enhance the training of our coastal scouts,” Licuanan said.
The DLSU have grade-school and high-school coastal scouts who are trained in marine science at their marine station in Batangas.
The Coral research is expected to come up with 3D images of the reefs and fishes.
After diving, deploying long measuring tapes, taking pictures of the reefs and a million photos for evaluation and mapping, Licuanan believes that there is still a lot more to work on but not just for the research, but extending the work to the community further.
At DLSU, Licuanan plans to educate students about coral reefs by installing a huge aquarium inside the campus that showcases live corals so they would know how corals look like.
Republic Act 10654, Section 96 on the Ban on Coral Exploitation and Exportation states: “It shall be unlawful for any person or corporation to gather, possess, commercially transport, sell or export ordinary, semi-precious and precious corals, whether raw or in processed form, except for scientific or research purposes.”
Licuanan said this means the plan of having an aquarium can materialize soon in the university. He added that putting up an aquarium with live corals in the university is part of their mandate to be stewards of God’s creation. “How can you be stewards if you don’t know what corals look like when they’re alive?”
At the same time, Licuanan urged the government to strengthen its capability to provide technical support to the local governments. As an example, he cited that under the Fisheries Code, 15 percent of the municipal waters should be declared as protected areas.
Fisheries is under the municipal agricultural office but, “there is nobody there with training specifically for coral reefs,” he lamented.
The Denr was not spared. He said the agency is mostly made up of foresters and very few marine scientists. He thinks there must be a way to change the situation.
Moreover, the local government should also work together to enhance management. “There are issues on local management of reefs but there are potentials,” he added.
Such potentials can only be realized with education, he said. Hence, the center also partnered with freedivers and community members.
The center developed a monopod for the divers to take pictures they could show to the local residents in the barangay hall where the ShORe Center can train the rest of the community to recognize and count corals.
“Tools development focusing on local communities with the argument that if you allow the community to see for themselves the state of the reef and what human activities are doing, it will be the basis for better compliance,” Licuanan explained. “Definitely [there is a need for] greater awareness and hopefully that would count into management of coral reefs at the LGU level.”
The hope is to have more informed citizens in all coastal communities who will eventually, protect the rich marine ecosystem the Philippines have.
Image credits: Stephanie Tumampos