Asia-Pacific, Biodiversity, Environment, Headlines

PHILIPPINES: Biodiversity Threatened Before It’s Discovered

Kara Santos

BATANGAS, May 30 2011 (IPS) - “Every time we go in the water, someone discovers something that’s never been seen before,” says Dr. Terrence Gosliner, leader of the ongoing 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition.

New species are found on every dive in the expedition in the Philippines. Credit: California Academy of Sciences

New species are found on every dive in the expedition in the Philippines. Credit: California Academy of Sciences

Gosliner is dean of science and research collections at the California Academy of Sciences, which is conducting its largest expedition to date. He describes the richness of marine life in the Philippines as “seemingly endless.” Though he has been coming back for over 20 years on various expeditions, he still manages to find at least one new form of life during every dive.

“Many people believe that the Great Barrier Reef in Australia has the richest coral reefs, but that’s not true,” says Gosliner. “It’s actually the countries in the Coral Triangle (Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste) that have the richest coral reefs in the world.

“For every group of animal that we are studying here, we’ve found new species already in the first three weeks of the expedition,” Gosliner tells IPS as his team prepares to explore the marine resources of the Verde Island Passage, a 1.14 million-hectare area of water shared by various coastal and island provinces.

Past research by scientists suggest that the area is “centre of the centre” of marine shorefish biodiversity. Scientific researchers say that it is home to more documented species than any other marine habitat on earth.

Gosliner estimates that they have already discovered around a hundred new species in all the areas of scientific study in the expedition. But despite being one of the “hottest of the hotspots” Gosliner says that the biodiversity in the Philippines remains relatively unknown. Scientists believe that many new species remain to be discovered in the country.

He adds that coral reefs are highly threatened in most places due to unsustainable harvesting, pollution, rising sea temperature and ocean acidification.

Even as scientists continue their expedition to discover new species, news reports surfaced that an entire reef complex twice the size of Manila was decimated off the coast of Cotabato, in the south of the country.

According to a news report in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, officials confirmed that poachers harvested more than 21,000 pieces of black coral and killed 161 endangered turtles and other marine life.

The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition is the first expedition to make a comprehensive survey of both terrestrial and marine diversity. Until June, 2011, academy botanists, entomologists and marine biologists will be exploring shallow-water reefs, the deep sea, and terrestrial and freshwater areas of the Philippines for new life and documenting the biodiversity of the island nation.

The expedition aims to come up with an assessment of the Philippines’ biodiversity to help future conservation decisions and policies. The academy is working with government, local schools and conservation groups.

Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan, professor at the De la Salle University, one of the expedition’s local academic partners, points out the importance of studying the biodiversity because many species are already threatened even before they are properly documented.

“This site is very near urban areas that do not manage their solid waste,” he tells IPS on a small island near the dive site where candy wrappers, old rubber slippers and other debris litter the shoreline. In their underwater explorations, Licuanan says it’s not uncommon to find plastic bags and old diapers wrapped around corals and dry cell batteries dissolving on the ocean floor.

Verde Island is also one of the busiest sea lanes, where commercial and industrial ships and passenger ferries from southern islands regularly pass to reach capital Manila.

“The impact of people is very noticeable on the beach and water. Imagine if an oil spill were to happen in the area,” adds Licuanan. At present, no infrastructure is in place to contain a major oil or chemical spill and the nearby Batangas Bay is quickly becoming a major refining and petrol chemical centre in the country.

Unlike other countries where marine protected areas (MPAs) are uninhabited, here, rows of diving resorts and communities stretch across the shoreline. Lavish private resthouses and resorts can also be found on small pocket-sized islands.

Because of the threats, environmental groups like Conservation International (CI)-Philippines have been working with local governments and communities to promote the conservation of marine resources of Verde Island Passage.

“We have been able to establish new marine protected areas in coastal communities and provide training and support to locals who make up Bantay Dagat (Sea Watch) to help enforce laws in the MPAs,” says Romeo Trono, executive director of CI. According to Trono, there’s been a marked improvement of 80 to 90 percent from the 1980s, when the area was known as a major hub for illegal fishing activities, yet the area faces new threats because of tourism.

Now, one of CI’s main concerns is to work with other dive resorts and locals in the area in terms of managing their waste.

“It’s a challenge to educate people on the importance of biodiversity in promoting healthy ecosystems,” he says. “We want to show people how protecting the area can lead to improvement in the quality and quantity of resources in the future.”

But aside from discovering new species, Gosliner says that what makes the expedition unique is that the team is also conducting educational outreach activities, while on location, for students, teachers and local government leaders to show the relevance of biodiversity in their lives and the need to protect it.

“Hopefully, we want the results of what we do to help people living in mountain and coastal communities to have a more sustainable livelihood in the future,” he tells IPS. “That there’s a way of utilising the marine, agricultural and natural resources and the richness of the biodiversity of the Philippines to promote greater economic development and sustainability for local communities.”

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