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Most Philippine seas, reefs in a terrible state

A marine ecologist warned that the majority of marine ecosystems in Philippine seas are facing severe risks of degradation, despite the country’s stature as one of the best diving destinations in the world.

Avigdor Abelson, a professor of marine biology at the University of Tel Aviv in Israel, stressed the need to heighten the protection of coral reefs and other marine habitats in the Philippines.

According to Abelson, most of the marine areas in the archipelago have been enduring damages caused by pollution, eutrophication, and destructive human activities such as solid waste disposal, poor fisheries management, and invasion of marine species.

He related that although the Philippines had been touted as the world’s center of marine biodiversity, based on the study of an American biologist published by the World Bank in 2007, most of the marine life that the country currently shelters either lack protection or suffer from alarming conditions.

“I have been to marine places in the Philippines that are considered the healthiest but none of them is fully protected,” Abelson said in an interview with The Manila Times.

“It is fascinating how we exploit our seas and how we are benefiting from them,” he added.

For many years, the professor has been examining the status of seas and oceans in various countries worldwide to have a clear view of how a particular area manages and protects its marine resources.

Dedicating much of his time advocating for environmental issues through research and restoration projects, Abelson has also worked as a consultant for numerous government organizations and non-profit groups. He also studies the negative impacts of humans on marine ecosystems, in relation to the exploration of underwater landscapes.

In March 2018, the Department of Tourism Office in New York City led the promotion of Philippine diving sites at the “Beneath the Sea Dive Show,” a scuba and dive travel program in the United States that aims to give countries the opportunity to present valuable diving and underwater experience to tourists.

While the tourism sector continues to promote the country’s wide array of beaches and relatively unexplored diving sites, responsible underwater and ocean tourism must also be practiced, Abelson said.

In his recent visit to Bagac, Bataan, a province known for its coastline and a number of beaches, Abelson said he noticed the lack of treatment for industrial water, which also damages marine ecosystems.

“Once I got into the water, I told myself that it was one of the worst places I ever visited in terms of the ecosystems. You will see almost no corals and you won’t see any fishes,” he said.

Abelson noted that many people—especially those who rely on healthy seas for food production and job generation—seem to neglect the significance of coral reefs as basis for the formation of other ecosystems.

He added that many coastal communities in the Philippines are clueless about the need to preserve and conserve coral reefs, which provide shelter and protection for many species of fish and other sea life.

“Studies claim that around four percent of coral reefs [in the Philippines] remain healthy but I think it is less than that,” Abelson said.

He noted that coral reefs are also important assets in the country’s wealth, since fisheries that depend on it provide livelihood to more than one million fisher folks, who contribute nearly $1 billion annually to the country’s economy, he said.

“The value of coral reefs is so high because of the ecosystem services that they provide,” Abelson added.

Abelson also cited some famous diving spots in the country, which he said, had been partially threatened, such as the Tubbataha Reef in the middle of the Sulu Sea and Palawan’s Coron and El Nido.

“Tubbataha Reef is the best protected area [in the Philippines] and I think it is beautiful. But I know people who have been there 20 to 30 years ago and claim that they observed dramatic changes for worse,” he said.

The professor noted that only 20 percent of the country’s marine protected areas (MPAs), or selected areas where human development and exploitation of natural resources, are regulated to preserve species and habitats.

Abelson suggested solutions that could help prevent the decline of coral reefs in the country, mentioning protection as the first step to make it possible.

“First of all is protection. The marine protected areas—it doesn’t have to be marine protected areas at all times—it can also be fisheries management,” he said.

Ableson noted that protection, however, could not recover destroyed reefs. Thus, it must be supported by stress removal and recruitment, which can lead to the recovery of reefs in a few years.

He also mentioned that the solutions must also adhere to the needs of the people who depend on the bounty of the sea for their living. “We don’t have to stop fishing. People have to feed their families,” he said.

The professor recommended the installation of artificial reefs, which can serve as an alternative site to attract fishes. He said reef gardening or coral transformation is common in the country and can serve as a tool if designed in the right way.

“If it’s effective, you’re going to see lots of fish in a short span of time,” he said.

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