Typhoons a bane to coral reefs, experts say

Haiyan 2

Earth Month Celebration

Report by Irma Faith Pal

DUMAGUETE CITY — A National Scientist has expressed concern over the damage to coral reefs, particularly marine protected areas, with the coming of the typhoon season in the Philippines.


Dr. Angel C. Alcala of the Silliman University Angelo King Center for Research & Environmental Management said the southern Philippine area, which has the most number of no-take marine reserves in the world, has been hit by four typhoons between 2008 to 2013, compared to only two typhoons in the 24-year period from 1983 to 2007.


Two of these typhoons, ‘Sendong’ and ‘Pablo’, which hit the country in December 2011 and in December 2012, respectively, destroyed the no-take marine-protected area of Apo Island off the coast of Dauin town in southern Negros Oriental. “The coral reefs – the habitat of fish – were also destroyed,” he said.


The Apo Island marine sanctuary has been protected from fishing since 1982, and was generating 150 tons of fishcatch per kilometer before 2011. “The more-than-25-years of protection of the marine sanctuary at Apo resulted in 27 times more biomass, and 11 times more species of large predatory fishes.”


The study on Apo Island after the typhoons, initiated and completed by Dr. Rene Abesamis of SUAKCREM, Dr. Garry Russ of the School of Marine & Tropical Biology at James Cook University in Australia, and Dr. Alcala, found that the Apo marine sanctuary had “zero live coral cover” after ‘Sendong’ and ‘Pablo’. It had 60 to 70 percent coral cover by 2008.


Through the Baited Remote Underwater Video surveys in December 2014 at Apo Island, Abesamis and his team found that the number of fish, like the yellow-tailed butterflyfish, groupers (lapu-lapu), and snappers (maya-maya), also decreased. Parrotfishes survived relatively better.


Their study found that the reduced abundance of fish and loss of biodiversity has negative implications on the aspect of food security.


The video footages at 30 to 40 meters underwater showed badly-damaged coral reefs. At 40 to 80 meters deep, there were no well-developed coral reefs, and the layer of rock that could be seen consisted of dead coral boulders that rolled down the slope in the sand.


The scientists concluded that it was unlikely that the mobile predatory fish (snappers) took refuge in the deeper waters as there was no good habitat there.


Alcala also pressed on the need to relocate the no-take marine-protected area in Apo Island to the western part of the island that is not disturbed by typhoons.


He added that the new MPA is expected to build up a high abundance of adult fishes over time, and produce larvae to sustain the abundance in the other areas of the Island.


Alcala cited his earlier studies in Pescador Islands, off the western coast of Cebu, where about five to 11 percent of hard coral per year (or about 45 percent of live hard corals in four years) is expected to recover exponentially, if no typhoon hits the marine sanctuary.


Another adaptation measure that Dr. Alcala pointed out is for the fishers to use bamboo traps set at 70 to 80 fathoms (about 144 meters) to catch fish, “instead of the habit of using steel bar traps – which is bad”.


He also urged the people to stop eating parrotfishes (mulmol), and to stop fishing for parrotfish to help hasten the recovery of shallow reefs.


He said that mulmol graze on algae found on chunks of corals that are torn from a reef. They pulverize portions of coral reefs to get to the algae-filled polyps. Algae compete with coral recruits for sunlight, and would shade the coral recruits, preventing them from growing.


“If the people stop eating parrotfishes, and fishermen lay off fishing for parrotfishes, there would be more parrotfishes that will eat the algae that compete with the growth of coral recruits,” Dr. Alcala said.

The colorful mulmol (which usually come in a combination of orange, yellow, green, blue) is sold for P180.00 a kilo in the local market because of their abundance around tropical reefs. In Polynesia (including Hawaii), it is served raw and was once considered “royal food,” only eaten by the king.


Dr. Alcala warned on the effects of climate change on coastal waters including an increase in its acidity and an increase in its temperature. “Warm waters cause coral bleaching, or the whitening of the corals due to the loss of algae living in them,” he said.


He also warned on the rise of the sea level. “This, in turn, accelerates the erosion of beaches, the flooding of low-lying or flat islands (resulting in the displacement of people), and it favors the expansion of mangroves toward the land, and seawater intrusion into our land.”


He added that climate change could cause storm surges that destroy coral reefs, “which, in turn, kills or displaces fishery species and other species of marine biodiversity”.


Dr. Alcala spoke during the Forum on Climate Change, Poverty & Development organized by Silliman University and the Oscar M. Lopez Center for Climate Change Adaptation & Disaster Risk-Management Foundation Inc. (Irma Faith Pal)


photo credit: IVAbano and Greenpeace

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