Fish production plunging due to coral reef destruction

Experts describe coral reefs as “Eden beneath the waves” due to their majestic colors and various forms. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

By Henrylito D. Tacio 

Fish, like rice, is a staple food of Filipinos. The average Filipino eats 98 grams of fish per day and 36 kilograms of fish per year, reports the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). Fish is the cheapest source of animal protein compared to beef, pork and chicken in the country.

The country’s fish icon. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

It’s not surprising that fishing has been an important source of livelihood for Filipinos since the beginning of time. In fact, the Philippines is among the top fish producing countries in the world. The Philippines ranked 10th in capture fishery production in 2019. As such, fisheries resources play a significant role in foreign exchange, contributing to the country’s gross domestic product.

“During the past decades, the people have enjoyed the abundance of the Philippine marine fishery resource,” said a position paper from Philippine Economic, Environmental and Natural Resources Accounting (PEENRA). 

“Ask the old fisherfolk how they culled their harvests,” the paper said. “Many of them would say that fish sized with less than a foot rule will automatically be thrown back to the water. Back then, they even had the luxury to choose the most palatable fish among the wide variety of species thriving in a particular fishing ground.”

Next to bangus, tilapia is now the most popular fish among Filipinos. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

This no longer holds true these days. Majority of the fishing grounds in the country are overfished. “Overfishing is the main issue, with today’s fishers ranging farther and trying harder to catch more – but there are more fishers and too few fish,” observes Gregg Yan, director for Communications for Ocean Philippines.

Some consumers are already feeling the impact. Jeannyline T. Arriaga, from Bansalan, Davao del Sur, is a doting mother. She usually wakes up early in the morning to prepare breakfast for her two children, who are going to school. Generally, she cooks rice and fish.

Lately, however, she observes that the fish she usually buys at the public market has become scarcer. In fact, there are days when she could not find any that she buys another kind of fish. Her two children complain because they don’t like the new kind of fish she serves to them.

Jeannyline also notices that if the fish she likes is available, they are becoming smaller. “They are not only getting scarcer but they are becoming expensive, too,” she points out.

She may not be aware of it but it is not the only fish she likes that is becoming rarer and pricey but the same is true with other varieties of fish. 

Fish being sold in the market are getting expensive and smaller. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

A survey by the Social Weather Stations commissioned by Oceana in 2017 found that 82% of Filipinos believe fish sold in the markets are more expensive now compared to 10 years ago. Meanwhile, 54% of respondents said the size of fish has become smaller and 55% said they found fewer varieties of fish in local markets compared to a decade ago.

In 2020, the PSA reported the country had a total fish production of 2,596,565.83 metric tons with 37.5% coming from commercial marine fishing, 31% from municipal marine fishing, 27.8% from aquaculture, and 3.6% from municipal inland fishing,

Fish farming has been cited as one possible solution to dwindling fish production in the open seas. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

“With the decline in the production of ‘galunggong’ (round scad) from our seas, importation of marine fish from Vietnam, Taiwan and China during the months and ‘closed season’ to augment local supply was done by the Department of Agriculture,” said Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero, an academician with the National Academy of Science and Technology.

“Closed season” refers to a fishing ban for three months. In the Davao Gulf, for instance, a fishing ban is implemented from June to August every year. Closed season is done “to conserve marine resources and to secure the spawning period of pelagic fishes.” 

In 2018 and 2019, 117,00 metric tons and 45,000 metric tons of fish were imported, respectively, according to Dr. Guerrero who once headed the Philippine Council for Marine and Aquatic Resources Research and Development.

“With our country’s growing population, there is a need for further increasing fish production to cope with the demand,” the fishery expert pointed out.

Aside from overfishing, unabated illegal fishing activities, lack of political will to fully implement fisheries laws and regulations, lack of post-harvest facilities, and encroachment of commercial fishers into municipal waters, said Oceana, an international advocacy dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans.

Added to those woes is the destruction of the country’s ecologically-fragile coral reefs. “About 25% of the ocean’s fish depend on healthy coral reefs. Fishes and other marine organisms shelter, find food, reproduce, and rear their young in the many nooks and crannies formed by corals,” explains the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Healthy coral reefs support artisanal and commercial fisheries,” writes Diovanie De Jesus, Oceana campaign and science specialist. “Coral reef fisheries such as groupers and lobsters directly rely on the reef for spawning and habitat. Pelagic (open water) fisheries such as sardines and tuna indirectly rely on the reef through the food they consume.”

Coral reefs are the marine equivalent of rainforests and considered one of the planet’s essential life-support systems. These “biological wonders,” as American environmental author Don Hinrichsen called them, are among the largest and oldest living communities of plants and animals on earth, having evolved between 200 and 450 million years ago.

Experts describe coral reefs as “Eden beneath the waves” due to their majestic colors and various forms. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

Coral reefs are constructed by millions of flower-like animals with tube-like bodies and finger-like tentacles called polyps. The form of polyp, which is about the size of a fingernail (one centimeter to three centimeters), depends on the shape and form of the coral. A coral may be a single large polyp. Near the sea’s surface where waves have a strong effect, corals are massive. As they occur in deeper water, they become branched or take on flowery forms.

Hinrichsen claimed it takes centuries to create a reef. The coral’s skeletons amass to form the foundation of a reef.  The stony structures grow slowly, normally at a rate of 0.25 centimeters to 0.5 centimeters a year.

It takes centuries before they are formed. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

The stony corals are actually the bedrock of the reef. “Stony coral colonies are composed of hundreds of thousands of individual living polyps,” the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says. “Polyps are capable of drawing dissolved calcium from seawater, and solidifying it into a hard mineral (calcium carbonate) structure that serves as their skeletal support.”

On how important and vital coral reefs are in fish production, the EPA points out: “Polyps of reef-building corals contain microscopic algae called zooxanthellae, which exist with the animal in a symbiotic relationship. The coral polyps (animals) provide the algae (plants) a home, and in exchange the algae provide the polyps with food they generate through photosynthesis.” 

Because photosynthesis requires sunlight, most reef-building corals live in clear, shallow waters that are penetrated by sunlight. The algae also give a coral its color; coral polyps are actually transparent, so the color of the algae inside the polyps show through.

Coral reefs provide habitat for a large variety of marine life, including various sponges, oysters, clams, crabs, sea stars, sea urchins, and many species of fish. They are also linked ecologically to nearby seagrass, mangrove, and mudflat communities. Coral reefs are so valued because they serve as a center of activity for marine life.

As fishing grounds, coral reefs are thought to be 10 to 100 times as productive per unit area as the open sea.

There are three major types of coral reefs, according to former Environ­ment Secretary Angel C. Alcala. These are the fringing type (those found on the edges of islands and which constitutes 30 percent of the country’s coral reefs); the barrier type (best exemplified by the Dajanon Reef of Central Visayas); and the atoll (of which the Tubbataha and Cagayan Reefs in the Sulu Sea are ideal examples).

The Philippines holds one of the most extensive coral reefs in the world with a sprawling area of 27,000 square kilometers strategically located in Palawan (37.8%), Sulu (27.8%), Visayas (21.7%), Northern Luzon (7.6%), Central and Southern Mindanao (3.2%), and the Turtle Islands (1.7%).

A survey conducted by the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines at Diliman showed that nationwide, out of 742 stations monitored, 39 or only 5.3% were still in excellent condition (75-100% live coral cover), 187 or 25.2% could be consid­ered in good condition (50-74% live coral cover), 290 or 39.0% were in fair condition (25-49.9% live coral cover), while the rest, 226 stations or 30.5% were in poor condition (0-24% live coral cover).

“Nowhere else in the world are coral reefs abused as much as the reefs in the Philippines,” commented marine scientist Don McAllister, who once studied the cost of coral reef destruction in the country.

Sedimentation is said to be the most important single cause of reef degradation. Sediments that wash over reefs have a number of negative effects on corals, marine scientists claim.

“The initial plume blocks out sunlight, reducing photosynthesis and therefore the quantity of energy available to the coral polyps,” explains Peter Weber, of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute. “If the sediment settles on the reef, the polyps have to work together in waves to attempt to uncover themselves, and they produce extra quantities of mucus to try to wash off the particles. As a result, corals are weakened.”

Deforestation is the most common source of sediments. When trees are cut down and the underbrush burned, the mountainsides become bare and the soil are defenseless against strong wind and rain,” says the Coral Research Project of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). “During rains, runoff carries eroded soil down to the rivers that deposit it in the sea.”

Coastal development, which helps drive this deforestation, is itself a major cause of reef decline. This includes activities such as filling to provide sites for industry, housing, recreation, airports and farmlands; extraction of lagoon sand for use in construction; and dredging to create, deepen or improve harbors and create ports and marinas. Such activities increase turbidity, alter water circulation and even cause the destruction of entire reef systems.

Destructive fishing methods, particularly dynamite fishing and cyanide fishing – also contribute to the rapid disappear­ance of the country’s coral reefs. Practices like muro-ami and the kayakas have also created the same havoc.

Too many are looking for fish. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

Muro-ami is a technique that involves sending a line of divers to depths of 10-30 meters with metal weights to knock on corals in order to drive fish out and into waiting nets. Kayakas, a smaller version of muro-ami, uses bamboo or tree trunks and coconut leaves or other materials as scarelines to drive the fish out of the coral reefs.

Aside from these human activities, natural causes of de­struction among coral reefs also occur.  These include extremely low tide, high temper­ature of surface water, predation, and the mechanical action of currents and waves. Extremely low tides usually expose corals to sunlight and to freshwater runoff, both of which are said to be lethal over several hours of exposure.

In recent years, corals are exhibiting a new kind of degra­dation:  massive bleaching. Explains John Ryan of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute: “When sub­jected to extreme stress, they jettison the colorful algae they live in symbiosis with, exposing the white skeleton of dead coral beneath a single layer of clear living tissue. If the stress persists, the coral dies.”

Coral reefs are fast disappearing from the open seas. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

The destruction of coral reefs and other coastal ecosystems (mangroves and seagrasses) in Lamit Bay in Camarines Sur resulted in “catching fewer fish and smaller fish with each passing year,” according to a study done by the International Union of the Conservation of Nature in the area.

Now, the good news. Thanks to a pioneering fragmentation approach, coral growth that would usually take up to 100 years to produce is now happening on reefs in as little as two years.

Dr. Alexandra Hill, a British marine biologist who headed a study looking at reef regeneration in Camiguin, is showing the way. Her reef-rescue team employed a relatively new technology that involves the process of micro-fragmentation and colony fusion of coral fragments. This differs significantly from the more common coral restoration methods that usually focus on branching species.

“In this technique, the massive corals – which normally have a slow growth rate – are fragmented or broken up using special equipment,” Dr. Hill explained, “and the corals exhibit a faster growth rate when fragmented. Furthermore, fragments from the same donor colony have the ability to fuse together when physically joined which increases their overall surface area and their chances of survival.”

Knowing that the country’s coral reefs are vanishing from this part of the world, the government has passed several laws. The exploitation of ordinary corals and restriction on the sale of precious and semiprecious corals, for instance, are contained in Presidential Decrees No. 1219 and No. 1698.

“Ordinary” corals, the stone variety of reef-building corals, are easier to find than the “precious” corals.  The latter comes in various colors:  red, pink or white.  The “semi­precious” are the black corals.

PD 1698 also prohibits the gathering, harvesting, collec­ting, transport­ing, possessing, selling and/or exporting of ordinary corals, either in raw or processed form. “The use of corals and materials in buildings, and other man-made structures such as, but not limited to, piers, dams, and dikes, is likewise prohibited,” said a provision of the law.

PD 1198 amends PD 1219 and limits permits to gather in limited quantities of corals for scientific or educational purposes only and limits the grant of a special permit to experimental collection of precious and semi-precious corals.

Fisheries Administrative Order 155, series of 1986, regulates the use of the meshed nets in fishing. FAO 156 prohibits commercial trawl fishing and purse seine operations within a distance of seven kilometers from the shorelines and directs the law enforcement authorities to enforce such a ban.

FAO 163 outlaws the operation of muro-ami and kayakas in all Philippine waters.

All these laws, however, will only be effective if they are strengthened and enforced. “Our country has good laws pro­tecting corals, but the enforcement competent needs some work,” BFAR pointed out.

Every fish-loving Filipinos should be involved in coral reef protection and conservation. “We are only stewards of our nation’s resources,” urged Dr. Guerrero. “We should take care of our national heritage so that future generations can enjoy them. Let’s do our best to save our coral reefs.  Our children’s children will thank us for it.” 

Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

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