May 31, 2008

Is saving our reefs... A LOST CAUSE?

With 88% of region's coral reefs under threat, greater effort must be made to protect them
Chou Loke Ming, Straits Times 31 May 08;

Reefs of islands used by the Singapore military in live-firing exercises are among some of the healthier ones in the country.

MENTION 'coral reef' and the aquamarine expanses of Australia's Great Barrier Reef come to mind.

Less known is that one-third of the world's coral reefs are in South-east Asia, concentrated in seas covering a mere 2.5per cent of the earth's ocean surface.

All groups of reef plants and animals are present, in a wealth of bio-diversity seen nowhere else, which reinforces the region's status as the global centre of coral reefs.

But the great natural heritage of the region has been badly hit by economic development.

While damage has been ramped up since the boom of the 1970s, the regional alarm bell was sounded for the first time in 1993.

Of 49 reefs monitored in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, experts found less than one-fifth in good condition, based on live coral cover.

The assessment was the first based on monitoring of coral reefs, a capacity developed through the Asean-Australia Living Coastal Resources Project. It was estimated that degraded reefs had risen by 70 per cent in the preceding 50 years.

The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network of the International Coral Reef Initiative established an informal network of reef scientists in 1998, making regional assessments possible every two years.

It found that 88 per cent of what remains of South-east Asian reefs are under threat by human activities.

Human impact on coral reefs is varied, including coastal development, marine pollution, overfishing and destructive fishing. During the 1960s and 1970s, coastal development and pollution caused extensive loss and degradation.

By the 1980s, destructive fishing (mainly blast-fishing using explosives) became rampant, destroying large tracts of reefs, including those in remote areas that were once thought of as 'safe'.

Techniques soon evolved into another form of destructive fishing - poison fishing, where fish hiding in reef crevices are stunned by a cyanide solution squirted into the tight confines. The poison silently kills corals and smaller reef organisms that form the reef's ecological fabric.

As the world's appetite for fish increases amid the collapse of international stocks, destructive fishing practices are on the rise, making sustainable use of reef resources seem an almost impossible mission.

Protecting our reefs

ONE of the most common ways to safeguard reefs is to establish Marine Protected Areas. But while the figures sound good on paper - more than 430 areas have been declared - the truth is that they comprise only 8per cent of the region's reefs.

What is worse, only 10 per cent of protected areas are effectively managed by surveillance, for example, to ensure there is no illegal fishing.

Because our reefs are an important food and climate regulation source, their destruction means a loss of what was once considered an infinite food supply, as well as ecological services such as coastal protection, carbon fixation to use up global-warming gases and environmental quality regulation.

Reefs provide for free, services which would cost millions of dollars annually to run. As they degrade, human engineering is necessary to replace some of the lost services.

An example is the construction of sea walls for coastal protection. During the 2004 Asian tsunami, reefs in good condition gave better coastal protection from the force of the tidal waves than damaged ones.

The demise of reefs also means a significant decline of food supplies critical to coastal communities.

Then, there are the recreational benefits. Divers are always in search of pristine reefs and a well-protected reef attracts considerable tourist dollars. A healthy and well-managed reef is worth a lot of money. In fact, the annual economic gain from healthy reefs is estimated at $500,000 per square kilometre. Why then, are reefs constantly under threat?

One can only attribute it to ignorance or opportunistic short-term plundering. Long-term sustainable use is something myopic management fails to recognise because benefits are to be shared with future generations. To them, long-term sustainability is irrelevant to their limited term of governance.

Amid this dismal outlook, is there any hope of saving South-east Asia's reefs?

There are a few cases of effective management, which can and should be replicated to reverse the reef-degradation trend.

One of the best-known cases of a coastal community transforming a degraded reef that had been severely damaged by blast-fishing and overfishing to one that supports sustainable fisheries is that of Apo Island in the Philippines.

The 800 inhabitants of this small island realised in 1982 they had damaged the surrounding reef by overfishing. On the advice of reef scientists, the villagers stopped destructive fishing and set aside a quarter of the reef as a marine sanctuary.

The sanctuary is a protected zone operating as a 'no-take' area.

No one is allowed to fish or extract anything from this zone and even scientific investigations are limited to non-destructive methods.

The sanctuary replenishes the remaining reef, so much so that the entire community has been able to fish at a sustainable level since.

The reef now supports 650 reef fish species and 400 coral species. It now attracts coastal tourists and generates additional income.

The success of this community-organised sanctuary demonstrates the effective role of local communities.

In the Philippines, community-based management is now widely implemented, with mayors of some local districts supporting moves to galvanise the community to halt reef destruction.

Transferring this management capacity across countries is the next step in the battle.

The small village of Blongko, in Indonesia's North Sulawesi, has a 1,200-strong population largely dependent on fishing.

It learnt from the Apo Island marine sanctuary, and went on to establish the community-managed Blongko marine sanctuary 10 years ago.

Other forms of reef management have emerged in the region.

Resort operators with buildings close to good reefs, for example, acknowledge the importance of maintaining reef health as the beautiful corals and fish attract guests.

Some operators even provide resources to cash-strapped government agencies and help pay for boats and fuel for surveillance.

Unintentional protection

UNINTENDED reef management is seen in areas that prohibit visitor access because of security concerns or private-lease arrangements.

Reefs of islands used by the Singapore military in live-firing exercises are among some of the healthier ones in the country.

In Sattaheep, south of Pattaya, Thailand, the reefs are in excellent condition as they lie within a naval base that is off-limits to the public.

A good example of effective management in a region where enforcement is, for the most part, weak or symbolic is the strong protection given to reefs surrounding small islands that attract swiftlets to nest.

The birds roost in caves of these islands and their nests are harvested to produce bird's nest which can fetch up to $5,000 per kilo.

In the Gulf of Thailand, operators paying to harvest the nests take measures to ensure no one goes near the island. Some even hire guards armed with machine guns.

As no one ventures near the islands, the reefs are completely protected and in the best of health.

These different modes of reef protection show that positive action can be taken to prevent the habitat going to waste.

At national levels, more committed policies are needed to conserve reef resources.

Management effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas needs strengthening and review to target larger areas of coral reefs as only 8 per cent of the region's reefs lie within them.

But, as the success stories have shown, the picture is not totally dismal, and much can be done to save our watery treasure troves.

The writer is a professor at the National University of Singapore's Department of Biological Sciences, and has been involved with coral reef management research throughout South-east Asia. He has been a member of the scientific and technical advisory committee of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network since its formation in 1996, serving as chairman from 2003 to 2005.

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