Where have our beautiful corals gone?

The Philippines used to boast of over 27,000 square kilometers of coral areas. Back then, the country’s coastal and marine areas are teeming with reef fishes and other marine life, making it one of the most mega-diverse countries in the world.

Destructive development projects and fishing methods, including the use of trawls, dynamite and cyanide have caused enormous damage to the marine ecosystem, including its corals.

Worse, back then, corals were harvested and turned into souvenir items and sold to tourists.

Despite laws preventing similar kind of abuses to the marine environment, including laws against illegal fishing and to protect and conserve wildlife, the Philippines continue to lose its precious corals.

Poor law enforcement

“Very unfortunate,” was the description of Director Crisanta Marlene Rodriguez of the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) on the recent the illegal harvesting of corals that ended up as souvenirs.

Rodriguez, interviewed by the BusinessMirror on September 4 at the sideline of the Philippine leg of the Asean Biodiversity Heroes Regional Forum held in Makati City, was referring to the recent confiscation by the National Bureau of Investigation from a suspected smuggler of 1,800 pieces of live hard and soft corals and three giant clams worth around $54,000, or around P2.7 million.

The illegal activity would have gone unchecked had the social-media post by young biodiversity advocate, Romina Lim, did not go viral. Lim is a daughter of Asean Centre for Biodiversity Executive Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim.

Law enforcers probed into the “exotic souvenirs” at a shop in Long Beach, Washington. They were found to have come from the Philippines.

“It only reflected on our [inadequate] capacity to prevent to fully enforce the law,” Rodriguez admitted. She said such illegal activity would not have been possible without community having been in cahoots with those behind the illegal wildlife trade.

“We at the DENR-BMB will continue our efforts, intensify our campaign to highlight the value of our natural resources to educate the public,” she said.

Zero-percent excellent reefs

The continuing destruction of the Philippines’s corals and the unhampered harvesting of its marine resources have caused enormous damage to the country’s marine ecosystems leading some scientists to believe that it has completely lost the last remaining patches of so-called excellent coral cover because of this kind of illegal activity.

“At this point, there is already zero-percent excellent reefs in the country and with impending global threats, like climate change, we are faced with even a bleaker future,” AA Yaptinchay of the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines said.

Sought for reaction on the recent confiscation of the corals, which were being showcased as “imported” from the Philippines, Yaptinchay said through Messenger on August 28 that many people remain oblivious to the importance of corals; that selling corals and other habitat-forming species is illegal and worse, they will lead to the destruction of our islands.

Natural defense

“Without coral reefs, our coasts will be prone to storm surges and cause erosion, while a major source of our food supply will be lost, causing misery and more poverty to the nation,” Yaptinchay explained. “Moreover, our tourism pride of white-sand beaches, coral islands and surfing will eventually cease to exist.”

Yaptuinchay said it took thousands of years for our coral reef communities to develop.  In the same fashion, it will take a long time for them to recover from the destruction.

“It is the responsibility of each and every Filipino to ensure that our coral’s communities and coral reefs are regained, not by subjecting them to more exploitation and destruction, but through protection and conservation. Our very lives depend on it,” he added.

Crime against corals

Vince Cinches, ocean campaigner of Greenpeace-Philippines, said the crimes committed against our natural resources, including the corals, is an indicator that they have value, outside of their being a spawning and feeding areas of key marine species in the oceans.

Its value,  being a spawning and feeding areas of key marine species in the oceans, consequently mean food security for Filipinos, including maintaining the balance within the marine ecosystems, and protection from storm surges and impacts of climate change, and recreational value specific to tourism.

“Therefore, there is a need to address the nontraditional cause to the loss of our coral cover: such as poaching and extraction of corals from our waters,” he said.

The Philippines’ taking action to protect its marine resources, such as but not limited to corals, is key “since we are at the epicenter of global marine biodiversity,” Cinches said, adding that such biodiversity is also a magnet for people or organizations whose sole purpose is to profit without thinking of immediate and long-term consequences

Global effect

Jimely Flores, in-country science consultant at Environmental Defense Fund, a United States-based nonprofit environment group, said the continued assault to the country’s marine environment will not only affect Filipinos but other countries, which rely on the health of the Philippines’s oceans as a source of larvae and other marine ecosystems services.

In an interview via social media on August 29, Flores said corals regenerate or grow very slowly, especially the plate and dome-shaped species, which grow on an average of less than a centimeter a year.

With the discovery of destructive harvesting of corals, Flores said the illegal activity had taken years, if not decades, of natural regeneration or growth process away from the corals.

“Staghorn corals grow the fastest, which is about 3 cm to 4 cm a year. That depends on how big the corals were. We could estimate the minimum number of years we are losing, particularly for the aquarium market. They get the live ones only, and given that there are less than 1 percent coral reefs with an excellent live coral-cover condition, plus the increasing ocean water temperature that is causing most of the coral bleaching, even a small amount taken away means so much to the ecosystem,” she explained.

For the staghorn corals, taking just 10 cm of live coral means at least a year lost to us—for the slow-growing species that grows less than a cm per year, it is even more, she added.

More important, the damage extends beyond the coral’s economic values, Flores lamented.

“Also lost is our cultural and natural heritage. By now I could already imagine the Philippines without its rich ocean biodiversity pride,” she said.

Shift to best alternatives

How do we stop the destruction, especially if there is a big market for a thriving aquarium industry? People can help save corals and seashells by shifting to alternatives.

Sought for reaction by the BusinessMirror, Best Alternatives founder Gregg Yan said via Messenger on August 29, that the recent apprehension of a suspected smuggler with thousands of live corals and several giant clams in Bacoor, Cavite, has ignited public furor over the continued trade in protected marine life.

Offering his group’s solution, Yan said:  “Now  is the perfect time to shift to sustainable alternatives to corals and seashells.”

He proposed the use of “rubber, resin or polymer. Faux corals are painted and crafted to look real. A shift to them eliminates our need to source corals from the wild.”

The Philippine Marine and Reef Aquarium Society agreed, and asked marine aquarium hobbyists to shift from wild-caught to artificial corals, do proper research before keeping marine animals and participate in activities like coastal clean ups to give back to the sea.

An environmental nonprofit organization, Best Alternatives believe that, though legally protected, corals—generally classified as either “hard” or ”soft” depending on whether they form skeletons made of calcium carbonate—are collected for aquariums, jewelry and curio (display) trades.

Live hard and soft corals are kept by many aquarium hobbyists but require state-of-the-art equipment and special care to survive.

Slow-growing red corals are hewn into jewelry, while plate, staghorn and mushroom corals are collected, dried and bleached for display.

Vast numbers of seashells and other invertebrates like sea stars are also gathered, dried and exported to other nations.

Crime and punishment

A crime of illegal harvesting or destruction of corals could not be considered just a petty crime. There is a law that imposes a severe penalty for the illegal activity under Republic Act 10654, or the Amended Fisheries Code of the Philippines.

The law attempts to prevent the gathering, possession, transport and sale of ordinary, semiprecious and precious corals, except for scientific or research purposes and imposes fines ranging from P500,000 to P10 million.

Many seashells like giant clams and tritons are also legally protected, Yan noted.

“The damage wrought by the illegal trade in corals is immense. We’re happy to finally see the fight against the trade taken seriously. This gives hope that as a country, we are taking a stand to protect our precious natural resources,” said Vanessa Vergara, executive director of Reef Check Philippines.

“Seashells and jewelry like red coral bracelets and tortoiseshell necklaces can easily be made from alternative materials like hard plastic,” Yan said.

“Why flaunt how we can wear rare jewelry when we can take great pride in wearing eco-conscious alternatives? By shifting to more Earth-friendly choices, we can spare our seas from further damage,” Yan added.

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Jonathan L. Mayuga is a journalist for more than 15 years. He is a product of the University of the East – Manila. An awardee of the J. G. Burgos Biotech Journalism Awards, BrightLeaf Agricultural Journalism Awards, Binhi Agricultural Journalism Awards, and Sarihay Environmental Journalism Awards.