Diving in the glittering clear waters off Balicasag Island in the central Philippines, American marine scientist Kent Carpenter marvelled at the pristine coral reefs and grouper fish ‘as big as Mini Coopers’.
That was in 1975. A decade later, diving in the same spot, Dr Carpenter was appalled to find the reef dead. The use of dynamite and cyanide by islanders to catch fish had turned an underwater paradise into a ghostly grey wasteland. Divers visiting the site a few weeks ago found it in the same sorry condition, said Dr Carpenter. He added: ‘And this was once one of the most beautiful coral reefs that I’d seen in over 30 years of diving.’
Blighted reefs like Balicasag are strewn across the Coral Triangle, an area of stunning marine biodiversity spanning the Philippines, eastern Indonesia, parts of Malaysia, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. This expanse of ocean, called the ‘Amazon of the Seas’, now has one of the world’s highest proportions of coral species under threat of extinction – a result of destructive fishing and coastal development, aggravated by climate change.
With the meltdown on financial markets overshadowing the debate on global warming and the environment, why worry about coral reefs right now?
Above all, because they provide a habitat for a quarter of all marine species. Research published four months ago by more than 40 leading marine scientists warned that one-third of the world’s reef- building corals face extinction from local activities such as over- fishing, and climate change.
Corals are nature’s buffers, protecting coastal communities from soil erosion. And they boost local economies through the tourist dollars spent on scuba-diving. Against that backdrop, officials from the six Coral Triangle countries and marine experts met in Manila earlier this week to draw up a conservation plan. The initiative, started by Indonesia, is backed by US$450 million (S$680 million) in pledges from governments and multilateral development agencies.
‘We can’t afford a business- as-usual attitude any longer when the livelihoods of so many people are involved,’ said Mr Syamsul Maarif, Indonesia’s delegation head.
As a Philippine official put it: ‘The initiative is about shared responsibilities; we’re not talking about boundaries here.’
The condition of the reefs in the Coral Triangle varies considerably. Papua New Guinea’s were spared from the coral-bleaching effects of the ocean-warming El Nino weather pattern in 1997, and are still over 80 per cent intact. But only 20 per cent of the coral cover in the Philippines is in good condition. A rapidly growing population concentrated in coastal areas has long put an intolerable strain on marine resources there. Around 40 per cent of Indonesia’s eastern-seaboard reefs are still in top condition.
It takes on average 36 years for a coral reef destroyed by pollution – from sewage discharges, for example – or dynamite fishing to repair itself naturally. Scientists have been trying to accelerate that process.
‘There’s been encouraging results from re-seeding experiments, but this is an expensive process,’ said Dr Edgardo Gomez, a leading expert on corals. Philippine marine scientist Perry Alino said that more reefs must be declared as sanctuaries, to give them a breather from human activity.
Two decades ago, there were only 250 such sites in the Philippines; now there are over 1,000, though they cover only 0.1 per cent of the country’s coral area. The government is targeting 10 per cent coverage by 2020 under the plan. Indonesia aims to double its current 10 million hectares of marine protected areas in its reefs in the Coral Triangle by 2020.
The conservation plan sets out national and regional actions for protecting and rehabilitating the Coral Triangle. These include setting up more reef protected areas, measures to adapt to climate change and establishing baselines for monitoring. Leaders of the Coral Triangle countries will be asked to implement the measures at the World Ocean Conference in Manado, Indonesia, next May.
Source The Straits Times – October 25, 2008 by Alastair McIndoe, MANILA