CAIRNS, Australia – In what is regarded as the center of coral diversity in the world, the Tubbataha Reef in the Philippines is emerging as a model for conservation in the face of grave threats to the region’s coral reefs.
The Philippines is one of the six countries in a region dubbed the Coral Triangle, which contains nearly 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs and more than 3,000 species of fish — twice the number found anywhere else in the world.
Seabirds on the north islet of Tubbataha. Photo: Michael D. Marasigan
A new report from the World Resources Institute released at a weeklong symposium here said more than 85 percent of reefs in the Coral Triangle —the global average is 60 percent— are directly threatened by human activities such as overfishing, pollution from watersheds, and coastal development.
“Across the Coral Triangle region, coastal communities depend on coral reefs for food, livelihoods, and protection from waves during storms, but the threats to reefs in this region are incredibly high,” said Lauretta Burke, senior associate at WRI and a lead author of the report.
More than 130 million people living in Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste depend on coral reefs for food, employment, and tourism revenues, the report said.
“Much of the threat is anthropogenic, which is something we have control of,” observed Alan White, senior scientist of The Nature Conservancy and one of the report’s contributing authors.
Protection measures are lacking, however, with only three per cent of coral reefs in the Philippines designated as no-take zones inside marine protected areas (MPA), he said. In comparison, 29 per cent of reefs in Indonesia and 11 per cent in Malaysia are inside MPAs.
Amid the gloomy statistics, the Tubbataha Reef is one of the “excellent sites” among the measly one per cent of MPAs in the Coral Triangle that are considered to be effectively managed, White said. The Solomon Islands also has some good sites, he added.
“The Tubbataha is really a success story,” said White, who has done long-term monitoring of the reef’s resources for two decades.
Shift in marine diversity
Located within the municipality of Cagayancillo in Palawan, the Tubbataha Reef was declared the Philippines’ first national marine park in 1988 by then-President Corazon Aquino and subsequently proclaimed a World Heritage Site five years later.
Since the mid-1990s, when then-President Fidel Ramos stationed Philippine Navy and Coast Guard in the uninhabited coral atolls, Tubbataha has benefited from continuous protection against poachersthat brave the difficult crossing in the Sulu Sea to reach the reefs.
A park manager and civilian staff have augmented the armed personnel while a multi-sectoral board sets management policies in the park, which has been voted as one of the world’s ten best dive sites.
Theresa Mundita Lim, director of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB), said a study conducted in 2010 showed that the center of marine diversity in the Philippines had shifted to Tubbataha Reef instead of the central Philippine Sea, as an earlier study had indicated.
Fishing pressure in the Visayas due to increasing population and disturbance from tourism could be some of the possible reasons for the trend, she said.
Moreover, “we protected Tubbataha,” Lim told reporters on the sidelines of the symposium, which is held every four years to share new research results.
Secretary Ramon Paje of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which administers PAWB, has given instructions to her agency to come up with guidelines for scuba divers so that the country’s coral reefs can be protected from further degradation, Lim said.
Two-thirds of PHL reefs highly threatened
Overfishing and destructive practices such as blast or poison fishing are the greatest threats to the country’s reefs, affecting 98 percent or nearly the entire reef area, according to the WRI report.
The only exceptions are reefs in well-managed MPAs, the report added. These include the Tubbataha Reefs, along with Apo Island in the Visayas, and 23 smaller MPAs managed by local government and community organizations.
Two-thirds of the reefs are rated in the high or very high threat categories, going up to nearly 80 per cent when global warming and coral bleaching are included in the analysis.
Infrastructure development and crowding of coastlines, along with pollution mainly from farms and erosion of deforested mountains, threaten nearly 60 percent of reefs, the report said. — TJD/VS/HS, GMA News