MANILA -- Scientists are sounding the alarm on the plight of coral reefs nationwide.

They are raising the urgency for sustainably managing Philippine areas with coral reefs to help prevent these beneficial ecosystems' further degradation and loss.

Latest data show the country is losing its coral cover, warned Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan, professor and director at De La Salle University's marine station, Br. Alfred Shields FSC Ocean Research Center.

"Forty years ago, about 5 percent of our reefs were still in excellent condition, since more than three-fourths of the surface there was covered with live corals. We no longer saw this during our assessment over the last three years," Licuanan said in a media briefing on board the environment watchdog Greenpeace's ship Rainbow Warrior on Friday.

The problem is plaguing even Boracay Island, the scientist noted, as the country's top tourist attraction has no more coral reef in excellent condition.
Such loss of cover highlights the need for sustainably managing coral reefs, so present and future generations could benefit from these natural resources, he said.

Licuanan said management strategies for achieving such goal could include closing off areas to help reefs recover from degradation.
"Closing off means managing people's activities in the areas," he said.

Coral reefs are underwater structures that naturally form over the years. These are made of accumulated skeletons of corals, which are marine animals that permanently attach to the ocean floor, according to experts.

They said coral reefs are among Earth's most valuable ecosystems, as these support more species per unit area than any other marine environment.
The 2014 Asian Development Bank publication "State of the Coral Triangle" said Philippine coral reefs host about 3,053 fish species.

Based on the estimated 26,000-square km. coral reef area nationwide, the publication said annual potential yield from coral reef fish species is between 351,000 tons and 429,000 tons of fish.

"Reefs are important for food security," UP Marine Science Institute professor, Dr. Perry Aliño, said at the press conference.

Aliño said reefs also act as a buffer to protect shorelines against waves, surges, and rise in sea level.
Coral reefs likewise serve as tourist attractions, he noted. 

Sedimentation, marine pollution, destructive fishing, and negative impacts of coastal development are among the factors that contributed to Philippine reef damage, the ADB publication said.

Environment authorities said climate change-induced sea temperature rise beyond what corals could tolerate would stress out and possibly kill these animals. 

"Corals are the first to feel such warming," Philippine Coral Bleaching Watch coordinator Miledel Quibilan said at the press conference.

She said sea temperatures beyond 32°C would cause corals to bleach or turn white. Bleaching happens as such warming forces corals to expel the algae that live within them. The corals feed on these algae. 

Coral bleaching is a problem particularly for the Philippines, where there is high dependence on coastal and marine resources for food and livelihood, noted Quibilan.

Earlier, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) 6 (Western Visayas) cited coral bleaching as among the causes of coral cover decline in Boracay Island.

"Mean percent cover of live hard corals is 30 percent and soft corals is at 11.5 percent, which is considered fair,” DENR 6 said, citing results of its team's underwater assessment in Boracay's Coral Garden, Angol Point, Friday’s Rock, Laurel Island, Channel Drift, Bulabog Reef (Laguna de Boracay), and Yapak.

Regulating diving activities is among the team's recommendations for saving coral reefs in Boracay, the DENR office said.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) said the first mass coral bleaching event in the Philippines was reported in 1998-1999, beginning in Batangas and spreading nearly clockwise around the country. 

The bleaching correlated with anomalous sea surface temperature, noted BFAR. 

Decrease of live coral cover due to bleaching ranged from 0.7 percent to 80 percent, BFAR said.

Greenpeace Southeast Asia Executive Director Yeb Saño said government and industry must rapidly increase protection of marine ecosystems to help safeguard and strengthen natural climate mitigation and these resources' ability to adapt.

Climate change, Saño stressed, is compounding challenges these marine creatures are already facing from pollution and other threats.

Saño said both government and industry must speed up the transition to 100-percent renewable energy by drastically cutting climate change-driving carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants and other sources.

"The situation isn't getting better. If we continue emitting carbon like we do now, we only have three years left before breaching the 1.5°C threshold," he said at the press conference. 

The Paris Agreement on climate change aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide to keep global temperature below such threshold.
In 2013, the US Navy ship USS Guardian ran aground in part of Tubbataha Reefs, a national marine park and one of the Philippines' UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Licuanan said the damaged reef portion was already showing signs of recovery just five years after that incident happened.

"That portion recuperated by itself because the area was well-managed," he said.

Removing the USS Guardian from the area helped reduce the stress on the damaged reef portion there, the professor added.

Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Samahan sa Kanayunan chairperson Ruperto Alerosa also said his group's coordination with Calatagan municipality in Batangas province had helped improve the condition of reefs in this area.

"We encouraged our LGU to focus on protecting reefs," he said at the press conference.

Small fisherfolk are among the country's poorest, so further damage and loss of reefs will mean increasing poverty for this sector, Alerosa noted.

Greenpeace continues calling for climate justice, noting those least responsible for climate change are suffering the most from this scourge's brunt.

Top greenhouse gas emission producers must account for their respective contributions to climate change, Greenpeace pointed out.

This week, Rainbow Warrior docked in Metro Manila to help promote Greenpeace's campaign for climate justice.

According to Greenpeace, Rainbow Warrior will eventually sail to Guimaras province and Tacloban City for the same purpose.

"The ship will serve as a global platform for climate justice," Greenpeace Philippines country director Amalie Obusan said at the press conference.
Climate change's threats to coral reefs and other ecosystems highlight the urgency for climate justice, she noted.

The scientists had earlier cited the onslaught of extreme weather events and sea level and temperature rise as climate change's impacts on the Philippines. (PNA)