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Coral reefs in crisis

Don Hinrichsen, environmental journalist and author, has explored coral reefs around the world for his latest book on coastal ecosystems. Here he reports on the crisis facing reefs and the struggle to save them.

On tiny Apo Island, off the southern coast of Negros in the Philippines, a sudden squall has chopped a becalmed sea into angry white caps. Our small dugout canoe rocks furiously back and forth as the waves march shoreward in military fashion, tossing us up and down like a cork. Without our outrigger for balance, the narrow craft would have capsized. Luckily, Jesus Delmo, president of the Apo Island Marine Management Committee, had just hauled in a full grown jack, its silver body still flopping in the bottom of the canoe.

In an hour the gale has passed, and the Mindanao Sea is once again smooth as glass. Delmo is already cleaning the jack, one of Southeast Asia's tastiest reef fish, for tonight's dinner.

A decade ago, such a catch would have been wishful thinking. In the mid-1980s there were few fish in Apo's over-exploited waters. In an effort to pull a living from the sea, Apo's 100 fishing families had pulverized and over-fished the 106-hectare coral reef that surrounds the island and provides Apo Islanders with food.

In 1984, facing the grim prospect of abandoning their homes and moving to the main island of Negros, help came in the form of two social workers and a team of marine biologists from nearby Silliman University in Dumaguete City. Their message was unequivocal: in order to rebuild their resources and their lives, they needed to manage their reef on a more sustainable basis. Protecting a small portion of their colourful reef from all forms of exploitation would help restore balance to the rest of the ecosystem, allowing fish stocks to recover. [ sea-scape ]

In 1986, Apo islanders voted overwhelmingly to set aside just eight per cent of their entire reef as a reserve, where no activities of any kind would be permitted, except scuba diving and snorkelling.

Cities under the sea

The dramatic recovery on Apo - just a pinprick on the map - is the kind of story that catches the attention of experts who follow the tragic decline of the world's coral resources. From Palau in the South Pacific to Australia, south Florida to the Ryukyu archipelago of Japan, coral reefs - the rainforests of the sea - are in big trouble, with 10 per cent already degraded beyond recognition and 30 per cent in critical condition. What Apo illustrates is that it's not too late to protect these wonderfully diverse underwater ecosystems and to do so in ways that make them productive for the people who depend upon them for their livelihoods.

Coral reefs are biological wonders, among the largest and oldest living communities of plants and animals on earth, having evolved between 200 and 450 million years ago. Today, most established coral reefs are between 5,000 and 10,000 years old; many of them forming thin veneers over older, much thicker reef structures. Most of the reef colony is actually dead. Only the upper layer is covered by a thin changeable 'skin' of living coral. The tiny, transparent polyps of stony corals are the master builders of the sea, erecting their architectural masterpieces upon the remains of their predecessors. Polyps secrete calcium carbonate (e.g. Limestone), which they fashion into enormous homes for themselves, and in so doing, provide a rich habitat for thousands of other species.

Corals vary enormously in size, shape and colour - from the delicate filigree of the sea fan and the branching "antlers" of the staghorn coral, to the bulging brain coral, which looks like a huge disembodied human brain. There are button corals, fire corals, lace corals, bead corals, organ-pipe corals and vase corals, all of which resemble their namesakes - over 600 species in all.

Dr Robert Ginsburg, a specialist on coral reefs working with the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, compares a coral community to a self-sufficient high-rise city under the sea, where each apartment complex has its own garden. Just as the rainforest has distinct and myriad life forms in each layer of the canopy, so coral-dependent species are linked to the type of coral and its supporting cast of plants and animals.

The secret to the reef's diversity of species lies in its multi-story architecture. Reefs are like inner-city apartment blocks, where each one room flat is occupied to two organisms. Resident reef fishes which forage during the day, share their living space with other, nocturnal species. While daytime fishes are feeding, their flat is occupied by a fish or other reef dweller, say an octopus, which is only active at night. During the night, the dayshift sleeps. This sharing of quarters allows a reef to shelter two separate populations of marine organisms.

Coral reefs are tightly woven ecosystems, with incredibly complex interlinkages. Remove, or disturb one key component of the reef's fabric, and it may trigger a nasty chain reaction of events. When artisanal fishermen over-harvested parrot fish and sea urchins on reefs around the Cook Islands in the South Pacific in the mid-1980s, opportunistic algal growth soon smothered the coral, killing the polyps. Why? Parrot fish and urchins are the sanitary engineers of the reefs, cleaning the coral of excess algae. Without them, the algae proliferated out-of-control, causing the entire ecosystem to collapse. Sponges are also keystone species. They act as the lungs of the reef, cleaning and recycling the water. Remove them and a crucial ecosystem function is lost, with consequences for the entire community.

In a clear coral lagoon, north of Mombasa, Kenya, Rodney Salm, a marine scientist working for the World Conservation Union, takes time out from his reef survey to explain why coral reefs are so diverse and productive. Salm, lean and tall, his skin burnished bronze from years of work in the tropics, has studied reefs for two decades.

"The high productivity of coral reefs," explains Salm, "is due to their efficient biological recycling and retention of nutrients." In a sense, they act like a very efficient production system. Instead of producing a waste product at the end of the pipe, the wastes are reused, recycled back into the coral's production process. [ fish-face ]

Nothing else in the sea rivals their biodiversity. The reefs surrounding the South Pacific island of Palau, for instance, nurture nine species of seagrass, more than 300 species of coral and 2,000 varieties of fish. Reefs provide habitat for over one million species of plants and animals.

Warnings of destruction

Not surprisingly, reefs are the main source of animal protein for over one billion poor people in Asia, a fact that is too often ignored by the region's governments as they struggle to develop their economies, often at the expense of common resources.

As coastlines fill up with people and pollution - in parts of tropical Asia and the Caribbean population densities already exceed 500 per square kilometre - the threats multiply as well. Not only are reefs pillaged and destroyed by fishermen using dynamite and poisons. They are damaged by fine mesh nets and boat anchors dropped carelessly on coral heads. They are excavated for use in cement production and used as road fill. They are killed off by pollutants pumped into coastal waters by irresponsible industries, smothered by eroded sediment torn off the land, and choked by untreated sewage and municipal wastes flushed into coastal waters by urban areas and tourist resorts.

Scientists estimate there are roughly 600,000 square kilometres of coral reefs scattered throughout the world's tropical and sub-tropical seas. The only thing most of them have in common is their deteriorating condition. Clive Wilkinson, a coral reef expert working at the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville insists that if nothing is done in time to conserve and manage coral reefs, we may well lose 70 per cent of them within 40 years.

Although Wilkinson's dire warning has been criticized as "alarmist" by colleagues, other, more detailed studies are beginning to paint a fairly alarming picture.

Extensive studies carried out on Jamaica by Terence Hughes, a marine ecologist with James Cook University in Townsville, chartered the near complete destruction of the island's coral resources. Hughes' report, detailing reef surveys done over nearly two decades, is blunt: coral cover, he reports, has been reduced from an average of 52 per cent to just three per cent around the entire island. Hughes blames over-fishing, disease and hurricane damage as the main causes of the extinction of most of Jamaica's coral reefs.

Back in the Philippines, marine biologist Helen Yap has documented the near wholesale annihilation of her country's coral reefs since the 1970s. While diving in the Lingayen Gulf, on the northwest coast of Luzon in 1989, Yap experienced blast fishing first hand. "There were so many blasts from dynamite fishermen that I couldn't count them during one dive," recalls Yap, who works for the Marine Science Institute at the University of the Philippines in Metro Manila. It got so bad that Yap and her colleagues stopped diving for fear of being blasted out of the water themselves.

Of course, the Philippines isn't the only country where poor subsistence fishermen and their families resort to dynamite, poisons and other illegal and dangerous techniques to put food on the table. They are, in a real sense, pillaging their children's future so they can feed them today. But most feel they have little choice. With the collapse of near-shore fisheries from years of over-exploitation and intense, unregulated competition from greedy trawler fleets, impoverished coastal communities have been left with few options.

As commercial pressures build up, subsistence fishermen are forced into a destructive cycle of dynamite, poisons and fine mesh nets. According to Daniel Pauly, a fisheries biologist working with ICLARM in Manila, "these fishing techniques are now the most common forms used in Southeast Asia, South Asia and East Africa."

Within the past few years, cyanide fishing has taken on new and frightening proportions. Two trends are behind the alarming rise in cyanide fishing: the aquarium trade began to pay big bucks for tropical reef fish, and restaurants in Southeast Asia and China began to specialise in live reef fish.

American marine biologist Robert Johannes and New Zealand fisheries economist Michael Riepen spent two years studying the causes and consequences of cyanide fishing in Asia. Their joint report, released in 1995, claims that the global epicentre for coral diversity - a huge lopsided triangle of tropical ocean stretching from the Philippines southeast through Papua New Guinea to northern Australia, then westward through the Indonesian archipelago to Borneo - is threatened with destruction.

The poisons stun the fish, sometimes even killing them outright. Worse, since the coral polyps cannot move, they are often snuffed out. In no time, poisoned reefs turn white and lifeless.

As demand for live fish accelerates in Asia, the price for some reef fish, like groupers and humphead wrasse, has soared to $60 per pound, fuelling an epidemic of cyanide fishing. It is now so widespread that Johannes estimates the trade in live reef fish in Southeast Asia at between 20,000 and 25,000 metric tons a year, worth more than one billion dollars.

Reserves to the rescue

Back on Apo Island, Jesus Delmo is adamant about protecting the island's coral resources. "We don't allow trawlers in our waters and anyone caught poaching is turned over to the proper authorities," he says matter of factly.

Clearly, the Apo lesson is one that more coastal communities need to learn. Even a little effective management can go a long way towards conserving reef resources and earning hard cash for local communities.

On the beautiful crescent-shaped island of Bonaire in the Dutch Antilles, the local communities declared their entire reef a marine park in the early 1980s. They took this step not to prohibit activities on the reef, but to be able to regulate and control them.

Dive shop operators were granted an operating license giving them access to prime dive spots; scuba divers and snorkellers were charged a "user fee", about $10 each, for access to the Park. Contrary to fears, the user fee system did not undermine the island's economy. Subsequent surveys revealed that the management system is well regarded by over 90 per cent of all visitors.

The World Bank, which helped finance the original management plan, thinks the Bonaire model holds promise for other small, cash-strapped islands facing similar challenges.

"Building financial sustainability into marine conservation programmes is as important as identifying technical solutions to problems," notes Marea Hatziolos, a coastal and marine resources management specialist working in the Environment Department of the World Bank.

One of the keys lies in convincing people that reefs are more valuable intact than exploited. In a sense, reefs must pay their own way, in the same fashion that African wildlife in game reserves and national parks have "paid their own way" by generating jobs and tourist dollars for local communities.

This is the approach that Phuket Island, off the breezy west coast of Thailand, took in the mid-1980s to save its coral reefs from wreck and ruination.

In March 1992, a National Coral Reef Strategy for the entire country was adopted by the Thai Cabinet and $2 million appropriate for its implementation, based on the Phuket model.

Recognizing the need for clear and co-ordinated international action to manage and conserve coral reefs, the United States Department of State, in close co-operation with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), first proposed the idea of an International Coral Reef Initiative in 1994. Seven other governments joined the US has founding partners: Australia, France, Japan, Jamaica, the Philippines, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

In May 1995, 100 participants from 44 countries representing governments, NGOs, international development agencies, and the private sector, gathered in Dumaguete City, appropriately within sight of Apo Island, and launched an international action plan to save the world's coral resources.

At the core of the initiative is the belief that coastal communities with coral resources need to be intimately involved in all aspects of planning and management. Solutions, if they are to be sustainable, need to be organic; in other words they need to come from the ground up, not imposed or dictated by national governments from the top-down.

The other part of the Initiative is an effort to get countries with coral reef conservation plans to make them work better by involving local communities in decisions. Ultimately, the Initiative is an attempt to prevent the duplication of efforts and to compel countries and donor agencies to pool their knowledge and resources to save coral reefs. This year, 1997, has even been declared the official 'International Year of the Reef'.

The Initiative comes none too soon. There is little doubt that the coral reef crisis is going critical. But Apo Island is proof that the people who depend on reefs for their livelihoods are probably best suited to manage them on a daily basis.

The challenge will be in replicating the Apo Island experience in tens of thousands of other coastal communities.

© Copyright: People & the Planet 1997

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