A love affair with coral reefs

I was five years old when I got to see my first coral reef back in Bantayan Island off Cebu, where my Yaya Yoly was from. I didn’t know how to swim then, so all I could remember from the experience is the few minutes of terror it took before I was pulled back into the boat. I did not see a reef again until I was a first-year college student. By then, I was much better skilled to savor the beauty and wonders found in the reefs of Puerto Galera.  

The same way that one’s first love serves as the standard against which subsequent interests are judged, the first coral reef one sees defines what is good and beautiful about a gem of our coastal waters. And because a reef must be experienced before it can be truly loved and not just appreciated, I have made it a priority to bring as many of my students to a reef, regardless of their age and preferred fields of study. Since many students cannot swim, much less snorkel, we need a large number of guides to accompany a class of students to the reef. The best guides are local fishers–-and the best fishers for this task are aquarium fish catchers, who know the local reefs well, and who know which creatures are interesting to observe and which ones must be avoided. Some of these catchers have an almost intuitive feel for the health of the reef and sense changes in the reef better than scientists.

In the recently completed Nationwide Assessment of Coral Reef Environments (NACRE) Program of DOST-PCAARRD, of which the DLSU Br. Alfred Shields FSC Ocean Research Center (SHORE) was a part, it was revealed that about one-third of the reef-building corals in the Philippines were lost in the last two decades. Among the 206 coral reefs surveyed by the NACRE teams from SHORE between 2014 and 2017, there were no reefs in the excellent category (i.e., those with live coral cover exceeding 75 percent). In contrast, five percent of the reefs surveyed were in the excellent category when the first nationwide assessment was completed 40 years ago. This situation should be a cause for concern given the enormous social, economic, cultural and environmental significance of coral reefs to the Philippines. The economic benefits of the country’s reefs, for example, are estimated at over US$1 billion per year, while the total economic value of Philippine reef swas recently assessed at $4 billion per year.

Many civil-society groups and even businesses are sponsoring coral restoration efforts involving ‘gardening’ of coral fragments. These efforts are ill-advised given that climate change and human impacts continue to challenge the health of almost all Philippine reefs. Efforts and resources are better invested on enhancing the ability of the reef to recover from damage by declaring the most important ones as suitably large, well-managed, and carefully-monitored marine protected areas where fishing, mining, coastal development are restricted or entirely banned.

In DLSU’s SHORE, we undertake “significant learning activities to enable faculty and students to generate knowledge and technologies that will foster good stewardship of the seas and coastlines.” We also “lay the groundwork for community development, and social transformation, particularly among the youth and disadvantaged members of the coastal communities.” Recently, we worked with a small group of scientists with the California Academy of Sciences, the Old Dominion University, and the Smithsonian Institution, and developed methods that allow citizen-scientists and members of coastal communities to monitor the biodiversity and health of their reefs.  

These methods do not require the use of SCUBA or specialized equipment. Even snorkelers or free-divers can undergo training in only two to three hours to apply these methods, which involve citizen-scientists recognizing and counting indicator species of butterfly fishes and select sea-stars, counting of all feather stars, and the taking of photographs for determining coral cover over the shallow reef slope. They also classify and count garbage in the water and along the beach. Despite the relative simplicity of these methods, the data they generate are useful for informing coastal communities on the state of their reefs. The data (and the process of data collection) also provide the bases for conversations among community members on the possible reasons for the changes in the reef and how the community can respond to these changes.

By developing the capability of citizen-scientists to monitor our reefs, our coastal communities are better empowered to take care of their environment and to ensure food security. This is because environmental challenges are better resolved by adjustments in interventions such as the establishment of marine protected areas, introduction of artificial habitats (nee artificial reefs), and fishery regulations. These are enhanced by a feedback loop involving monitoring and evaluation. Citizen-science monitoring, in particular, could help local environment and tourism officials determine the carrying capacity of coral reefs visited by tourists. This allows them to ensure the sustainability of tourism operations by spreading the impacts to other reef areas while other reefs are allowed to regenerate themselves. While reef assessments like the NACRE Program reveal to us what we have already lost, reef monitoring allows us to respond to changes as they happen.

My encounter with coral reefs might have started out rough, but it turned out to be a lifelong love affair. I hope that others appreciate their beauty as I do, before it is too late.

Wilfredo Licuanan is a Full Professor at the Biology Department of De La Salle University where he teaches ecology and marine biology. He is also the founding Director of DLSU’s Br. Alfred Shields FSC Ocean Research Center. The development of citizen science methods described in this article is funded by a grant to the DLSU SHORE Center from the Oscar M. Lopez Center for Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Management Foundation Inc. He welcomes comments at [email protected] The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty and its administrators.

Topics: Green Light , coral reefs , ecology , marine biology , De La Salle University , DLSU
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