Saving Philippine coral reefs from degradation

Reef Survey

Reef Survey

“Large areas were found with very high live coral cover, up to nearly 100 percent in places, but live coral coverage would have been much higher had there not been heavy dynamite fishing damage in many areas in the past.”

This was part of the written report of Dr. Thomas J. Goreau after he and his team assessed the coral reefs in and around Tubalan Cove of Malita, Davao del Sur in southern Philippines.

Dr. Goreau is the president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, a non-profit international organization founded in 1994 working exclusively to save coral reefs.

“Fish populations were very poor except around promontories with higher water flow,” reported Dr. Goreau, who has dived longer and in more coral reefs around the world than any coral scientist. “The area has a mix of prime dive sites suitable for ecotourism, as well as extensively damaged areas badly in need of restoration as fisheries habitat.”

But what amazed the team was finding almost the entire sea bed within the cove to be colony of one species of fragile cabbage corals.

“This is unique,” British diver Andrew MacDonald and his wife Jane Widdison wrote in their report.  “We have only seen one species dominate an individual offshore reef before, but have never seen any other ancient coral colonies like this which cover such a large area.  It appears that this colony covers an area of several hundred hectares and it is likely that these corals have taken centuries to form like this.

The couple has lived and dived in Mindanao for four years before joining the survey team.  According to them, the presence of the ancient cabbage coral colony alone makes Tubalan Cove as “one of the most special and unique places in the world for marine biologists and recreational divers alike.”

“The corals are very varied and colorful – a mixture of soft and hard corals – just what dive tourists like to see,” the husband and wife divers said in their report. “The corals are better in condition and coverage the closer you are to the open sea.”

There’s even more: “Diving amongst the corals of Tubalan cove offers great opportunities for macro (small marine creature) spotting and photography as good as anywhere in the world,” the two divers reported.

“We saw several species of small animals that are highly prized by dive photographers.”

But there are bad news.  One is turbidity of waters.  Tubalan Bay acts as a sediment trap for material eroded into the bay from the surrounding watershed.  “As a result, the waters in the bay are more turbid than outside, typically more in the 10 meter visibility range than the 20-30 meter range seen outside the bay,” Dr. Goreau said in his report.

Compounding the problem is the ever-growing population.  “The muddiest waters were in the western side of the bay, where the largest populations are, most of the fish farms, and where almost all the interior river drainage enters the bay. In these areas visibility was as little as 10 centimeters.”

There is also the problem of destructive fishing methods by those living near the bay.  “Physical damage typical of dynamite fishing was very common, both inside of and outside of the bay,” Dr. Goreau reported.  “These ranged from isolated craters in huge stands of intact coral to large areas of rubble with few, or no, intact living corals.”

The destruction of coral reefs caught his attention because Mindanao lies near the center of the “Coral Triangle” Region, which has the highest marine biodiversity on earth.

“Mindanao still has many reef areas that have never been dived on, much less systematically surveyed for species diversity,” Dr. Goreau said. “But it is safe to say that the biodiversity of the reefs is among the best in the world, as the area is linked by ocean currents with the surrounding reefs, and may contain endemic species yet to be described.”

The assessment was done in 2009 through the initiative of Zooxanthella, Inc., with support from the local government unit and Southern Philippine Agribusiness and Marine and Aquatic School of Technology.

Zooxanthella was looking for a suitable location in which to establish a marine resources rehabilitation and research center.

“The center is the entry point for Zooxanthella’s drive to introduce SAVE (scientific, academic, volunteer and educational) tourism to Mindanao,” said Shane Beary, the vice president of the organization who contacted Dr. Goreau to conduct the survey.

“It was SAVE tourism that made Costa Rica the world renowned ecotourism destination that it is today, and can do the same for responsible tourism and local livelihood development in the Philippines,” he added.

Before the year ends, the Zooxanthella Project will be launched in the area to see how the reefs are faring three years after the survey was conducted.  It also aims to introduce the biorock (mineral accretion-based) reef rehabilitation system to rapidly accelerate the rehabilitation of coral in damaged areas.

“Tourism alone is not the answer,” Beary admitted, “but used properly, it can be a powerful development too providing the funding and stimulus to address the financial, social and environmental problems that the local people face.”

The Philippines has 22,500 square kilometers of coral reef area, which represent 9 percent of the global total. It has the third-largest area in the world – after Australia and Indonesia.

By Henrylito Tacio

Photo courtesy of underwater photographer Shane K. Beary.

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