Coral reefs: Going, going, gone?

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    The Coral Triangle Initiative, founded in 2009, is composed of six countries, namely: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Timor Liste.

    Covering 5.7 kilometers of oceans and coast, it is considered the epicenter of marine biodiversity as it is home to an incredible 76 percent of the world’s coral reef fish species.

    Among the six members, the Philippines leads as one of the most devastated country in terms of coral reef destruction. “Poor coral cover is found in 40 percent of the country’s reefs, while areas with excellent cover have steadily declined to less than 5 percent from 2000 to 2004,” deplored Director Theresa Mundita-Lim of the Biodiversity Management Bureau.

    Lim said that the country’s remaining coral reefs are under threat from overfishing, destructive fishing practices, unsustainable coastal development, sedimentation, and pollution. “In 2002, overfi shing was considered the largest threat (about 40 percent) to coral reefs in the Philippines, followed by destructive fishing practices (approximately 36 percent),” she pointed out.

    A report released by the Washingtonbased World Resources Institute (WRI) has agreed with Lim’s observation.

    “Overfishing and destructive fishing are the greatest threats, affecting 98 percent of reefs,” said Reefs at Risk Revisited in the Coral Triangle. The report, authored by Lauretta Burke, Kathleen Reytar, Mark Spalding, and Allison Perry, said that destructive fishing methods alone – referring to dynamite and cyanide fishing – account for nearly 70 percent of the coral reef destruction.

    Decades of dynamite fishing, for instance, have wiped out many of the reefs and fish populations, according to the United States Agency for International Development. “Numbers of fish caught have plummeted over the last years,” the agency said.

    The rapid growth of population living in coastal areas exacerbated the problem. “The growth has amplifi ed the threats, comprising food security and socioeconomic stability in coastal areas,” Lim deplored.

    More than 60 percent of the country’s total population live in coastal areas. “Increasing population is a serious concern,” Lim said, adding that it “could lead to the overexploitation of coastal and marine resources.”

    The Philippines is located at the northern tip of the Coral Triangle. Consisting of 7,100 islands, it has around 26,000 square kilometers of coral reef area, which represents 9 percent of the global total. It is considered the second largest in Southeast Asia – after Indonesia’s.

    Of the 500 species of corals found in the Philippines, 12 of them are considered endemic. “The country’s reefs yield 5 to 37 tons of fish per square kilometer, making them very important to the productivity of fisheries,” the WRI report said.

    The fisheries sector provides employment to about one million people, including fishers, middlemen, traders, fish processors, and those involved in fish transport. “Fish is still the major source of protein for Filipinos, accounting for 70 percent of the total animal protein intake and 30 percent of the total protein intake,” Lim said.

    Despite the economic importance of coral reefs, they are continuously being destroyed at alarming rate. Aside from those mentioned earlier, other causes of the decimation of coral reefs, according to the WRI report are: coastal development (threatens 60 percent of reefs), and watershed-based pollution (also 60 percent), marine-based pollution (6 percent).

    Coral reefs are one of the most productive and biologically rich ecosystems on earth. They extend across about 250,000 square kilometers of the ocean – less than one-tenth of one percent of the marine environment – yet they may be home to 25 percent of all known marine species.

    “About 4,000 coral reef-associated fish species and 800 species of reef-building corals have been described to date, though these numbers are dwarfed by the great diversity of other marine species associated with coral reefs, including sponges, urchins, crustaceans, mollusks, and many more,” notes Reefs at Risk.

    “The Philippines has 22,500 square kilometers of coral reef area, which represents 9 percent of the global total, making it the country with the third-largest reef area in the world (after Australia and Indonesia),” Reefs at Risk reports.

    “All major reef types are present in the Philippines; most are fringing reefs along the coastlines, as well as some area of barrier, atoll, and patch reefs,” says the Washingtonbased World Resources Institute. In addition, the country is home to 464 species of hard corals.

    But it’s not only coral reefs that are being threatened in the country. Over 75 percent of mangroves have disappeared since 1920. The Philippines is home to 42 mangrove species, representing 18 families, according to Lim.

    Sixteen species of seagrasses inhabit the country’s 978 square kilometers of seagrass beds. “In spite of the ecological and economic value of seagrasses, between 30 to 50 percent of the country’s seagrass beds have been lost due to industrial development, ports, and recreation in the last 50 years,” Lim decried.

    Currently, an estimated 50 million Filipinos are now dependent on “the coastal ecosystem.” The PAWB head described the Philippines as “one of the 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world.”

    “This recognition highlights the urgent need for marine biodiversity conservation,” she urged. “While considerable gains have been made, challenges remain as a result of increasing population and growing urban and rural development. If these ecosystems are damaged beyond restoration, these would have profound consequences for Philippine society.”

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