One in every four known marine species call coral reefs home. Endlessly seeding the vast oceans with fish and invertebrate spawn, these sunken oases provide food and livelihoods for a billion people in Asia alone.
But 40 years of unchecked fishing, pollution and development have left few reefs without the scars of human incursion. A 2004 study by the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP MSI) found that only 1% of the country's coral reefs were in excellent condition.
To bolster this year's census of Palawan's world-famous Tubbataha Reefs, seven representatives from the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (PPSRNP) underwent a rigorous five-day coral reef monitoring workshop.
Held aboard the Palawan-based WWF research vessel M/Y Navorca and conducted by Reef Check International, the workshop featured classroom lectures on fish and invertebrate identification, substrate classification plus various monitoring methods. The candidates tested their newfound skills around the reefs of Puerto Princesa Bay in Palawan.
Generally, corals are classified as hard or soft. We focus on hard corals for they literally form the backbone of the world's reefs, explains Reef Check International trainer Eznairah-Jeung Narida.
To know whether Philippine reefs are improving or declining, regular monitoring is essential.
The final test was an actual reef assessment. The candidates found that despite occasional siltation and damage from boat anchors, White Beach Reef in Puerto Princesa still possessed an average hard coral cover of 38%.
Under a system pioneered by Drs. Ed Gomez and Angel Alcala in 1979, coral reefs with below 25% hard coral cover are considered poor, those with 25% to 50% are classed as fair, those with 50% to 75% are considered good and those boasting of more than 75% are considered excellent.
After juggling field and classroom sessions, all seven candidates were added to the country's pool of Reef Check-certified Eco-divers, able to assess local coral reefs for overall health and damage. The new diver-researchers are Angelique Songco, Segundo Conales, Noel Bundal from TMO, Gregg Yan, Dylan Melgazo and Darius Cayanan from WWF and Julius Parcon from PPSRNP.
The workshop was held to prepare Tubbataha researchers for the upcoming dive season this March. In light of the USS Guardian grounding incident, the new system might also be used to assess ship grounding damage.
Says Tubbataha Reefs Protected Area Superintendent Angelique Songco,
Objective monitoring delivers an accurate picture of the success or failure of management efforts. Improving reef conditions indicate that the time and money allocated for management is well-spent. If the data reveals otherwise, we'll know that it's time to modify our strategies.
A multi-awarded UNESCO World Heritage site which celebrates its Silver Anniversary in 2013, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park boasts of unparalleled biodiversity levels. Over 360 hard coral and 600 fish species inhabit the 97,000-hectare park, which annually seeds the Sulu Sea with life.
Concludes WWF-Philippines Tubbataha Reefs Project Manager Marivel Dygico,
The strength of the Reef Check system is that new assessments expand our global pool of coral reef data - allowing us to compare how our reefs are faring against others in the Indo-Pacific region. By adding to the world's knowledge of coral reefs, we improve our chances of conserving these critical marine enclaves.