Mission: Reduce threats to coral reefs

In Photo: A display of Philippine coral-reef organisms at the  California Academy of Sciences

The Philippine coral-reef system is the second largest in Southeast Asia, next to Indonesia. It is estimated at 26,000 square kilometers (sq km). However, a recent coral-reef survey revealed that they are in a bad state.

Amid this situation, the Philippines is joining the global celebration of the third International Year of the Reef (Iyor) with the call to strengthen the protection of the country’s precious marine and coastal ecosystems.

As a strategy, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is taking the path of reducing, if not totally eliminating, the various threats to the country’s network of marine ecosystems, including its vast coral-reef areas.

New coral-reef areas

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The Philippines’s estimated 26,000-sq-km coral-reef system does not include newly discovered coral-reef areas based on the results of explorations conducted in the last two years, and the Benham Rise is the shallowest portion of the 13-million hectare Philippine Rise is 250 km off the waters of Aurora province in the eastern part of Central Luzon.

The Philippine Rise officially became part of the country’s territory in 2012 by virtue of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (Unclos).

Since the allotment of a P500-million budget for the rehabilitation of damaged coral reefs in 2016, DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim told the BusinessMirror last week in a telephone interview that new coral-reef areas were discovered which will add spice to the challenge of protecting the country’s reefs.

ICRI founding member

The Philippines is one of the founding members of the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), a partnership between nations and organizations, which strive to conserve coral reefs and related ecosystems around the world.

The partnership was founded in 1994 by eight governments: Australia, France, Japan, Jamaica, the Philippines, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. It is currently supported by 60 countries.

In the Philippines Lim said the DENR-BMB will take it as an opportune time to add to its database of coral reef around 4,000 sq km of newly discovered coral-reef areas as a result of a nationwide survey in the last two years.

This would bring the country’s total coral-reef system to 30,000 sq km, still excluding Benham Bank, which has a perfect, or 100-percent coral cover, she added.

Alarming status

However, despite the discovery of new coral-reef areas, the country’s reefs are not getting any better.

At a news conference on February 14 held at the Greenpeace flagship, the Rainbow Warrior docked in Pier 15 in Manila, scientists, environmental activists, conservation advocates and other stakeholders sounded the alarm on the impacts of climate change on the world’s oceans, starting with the country’s coral reefs.

The nationwide Philippine coral-reef survey revealed they are in bad state.

Conducted from 2015 to 2017, the survey covered 166 coral sampling stations (108 in Luzon, 31 in the Visayas and 27 in Mindanao) in 31 provinces.

None of the coral stations were classified in the excellent category. Ninety percent were either “poor” or “fair”.

Scientists explained that increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere drives the rise in atmospheric temperatures, resulting in extreme weather events, changes in rainfall patterns and warming of oceans.

This lead to mass coral bleaching and sea-level rise from ice melt and expansion.

“Increase in CO2 in the atmosphere also means higher dissolution of carbon dioxide in the oceans, causing ocean acidification,” the Greenpeace statement said.

Massive coral bleaching

According to the group Philippine Coral Bleaching Watch, it has documented the impacts of mass coral bleaching at least three times in the last 20 years—in 1997 to 1998, 2010 and 2016 to 2017.

“Coral-bleaching impact was sporadic across the country. The degree of bleaching severity was varied and occurred at different months. What we are not certain about is whether or not our [Philippine] coral reefs still have the capacity to recover from such acute events amid more chronic stressors, such as pollution, overfishing and sedimentation,” said Mags Quibilan, coordinator for Philippine Coral Bleaching Watch, at the same news conference.

The combined effects of human activities on marine coastal ecosystems and impacts of climate change will cause significant degradation and impede, or further delay the corals’  natural recovery.

The group said that highly degraded marine coastal ecosystems would be compromised from delivering essential ecosystem goods and services to Filipinos, which are now valued at $966 billion.

Pollution, illegal fishing

Already troubled by pollution, illegal fishing and destructive fishing have made the fisherfolk sector the poorest of the poor.

“Now, as we face the devastating effects of climate change, we can see that this will aggravate the plight of our poor fishers, including fellow Filipinos reliant on a healthy sea for food, tourism and other forms of livelihood,” said Ruperto Aleroza, national chairman of Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Samahan sa Kanayunan, a national coalition of fishers and farmers in the Philippines, at the news conference.

However, according to the group, despite all the threats on coral-reef ecosystems and on the plants and animals associated with them, the oceans still protect the people from the impacts of global warming.

Climate-change effects

Over 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases has been stored in the ocean. But the environmental groups warned that man-made pressure coupled with climate change are pushing ocean ecosystems to its limits.

“The impact of climate change is far-reaching, and we need to address it at the root cause and extract accountability from carbon majors. Our reefs, seagrass, mangroves and other organisms in our seas are feeling the heat. A healthy ocean is a solution to climate change, and we need to keep it that way by creating a large network of no-take marine-protected areas,” said Vince Cinches, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Philippines, at the news conference.

The establishment of an effective management of a network of marine-protected areas and ocean sanctuaries including not only coral reefs but also seagrass and mangrove areas are needed to safeguard and strengthen their natural climate-mitigation and adaptation capacity.

This, coupled with better enforcement of fishery laws and the implementation of coastal, land- and water-use plans, will help save the day for the country’s dying coral-reef system, they added.

Being the epicenter of global marine biodiversity and the apex of the coral triangle, the Philippines is crucial to a healthy and resilient world ocean, said Dr. Perry Aliño, professor at the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute.

“Even though massive bleaching has happened across the country, we can remain hopeful since there are coral-reef areas that did not bleach and are showing signs of recovery. While we need to better understand the factors that make our coral reefs resilient, it is imperative that we improve our protection efforts and mitigation measures,” he said at the news conference.

Rich marine biodiversity

According to the DENR, the vast expanse of the country’s coral-reef system makes the Philippines, which sits at the apex of the Coral Triangle, the center of the center of marine biodiversity.

The country’s coral-reef system sits within 240 million hectares of water, which is home to some 468 species of scelactinian corals, also called stony or hard, over 50 soft corals, 1,755 reef-associated fishes, 648 mollusks and 27 marine mammals.

Important roles

Lim said this year’s Iyor celebration aims to ensure the protection of the country’s coral reef ecosystem, underscoring its significance in ensuring not only for food security and food self-sufficiency, but its role in mitigating the impacts of climate change.

“Coral reef is a spawning ground of commercially viable fish. On top of that, it acts as buffer to waves from the Pacific,” she explains, referring to the Philippine Rise.

Raising awareness

Lim said that during the yearlong event, the DENR-BMB will step up the information drive to highlight the importance of corals and amplify the call for cooperation among stakeholders.

She added that the agency would take the opportunity as it takes part in international events as part of the Coral Triangle Initiative and the East Asian Seas Congress.

“This year [of Iyor] offers opportunities to raise awareness and appreciation for our coral-reef areas. Also, the campaign for ridge-to-reef protection, which highlights direct and indirect threats to coral reefs, will be stronger,” she added.

In launching the third Iyor on February 12 at a hotel in Mandaluyong City, the DENR-BMB kicks off the year long campaign to promote conservation action and strengthen long-term collaborations for coral reef conservation.

In a statement issued on February 15, Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu said: “We have to recognize the fact that there is an urgent need to increase awareness and understanding of coral reefs and other associated ecosystems. Being an archipelagic nation, our coral reefs can be considered one of the lifelines of thousands of communities all over the region.”

Through this celebration and the succeeding initiatives with our conservation partners, he added, “We hope more Filipinos will have a better appreciation of the benefits—both social and economic—the coral reefs provide to the people.”

Titon Mitra, country director of United Nations Development Programme, said in a statement last week: “The Philippines is known to harbor more diversity of life per hectare than any other country in the world. This immense natural wealth—and this is a remarkable asset—however, faces significant risk.”

Mitra added: “Over exploitation and unsustainable practices, pollution, overfishing, poor land management and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change are contributing significantly to an alarming rate of biodiversity loss, particularly with coral reefs.”

Underscoring this year’s theme in celebrating Iyor, “Together in Protecting Our Reef,” Lim said getting the acts together to protect our coral reefs is imperative.

“One of the main issues that we want to highlight is the reduction of threats on marine biodiversity,” she said.

“No matter what we do, as long as the threats are not reduced or eliminated, our reefs will always be at risk, and so are the communities who rely solely in our marine resources,” Lim added.

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

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