(This blog post is my contribution to the Blog Action Day to Save our Coral Reefs and Seas.)
The Philippines is blessed with having a lot of coral reefs, which are not only nice to look at; they’re also sanctuaries for fish and other marine animals. The problem is that there are people who are actively destroying these reefs – people who harvest the reefs, for sale abroad; and fishermen using methods that destroy reefs.
The harvesting of corals is a direct way of destroying the reefs. If we note that corals are actually tiny animals which grow about 1 cm/year, it takes a long time before they are able to form reefs of any size. And the harvester just takes these away, undoing decades of growth. It will take a very long time to rebuild corals in these same locations.
With the corals gone, the many fish and other animals who take refuge at reefs are exposed and will disappear. Reefs are very important especially for recently hatched fish and the like, since they are able to avoid being eaten while still very young and vulnerable. Thus, the presence of reefs means that these fish are able to grow to maturity. Fishermen have everything to gain from reefs – less reefs mean less fish to catch.
Dynamite Fishing. There are fishing methods that are destructive for coral reefs. The most obvious of these is dynamite fishing. In this, the fisherman throws dynamite in the water, and this explodes stunning the fish, which then floats. Often, the shock of the explosion also destroys coral reefs.
Cyanide and Electricity. Another destructive way of fishing is by the use of cyanide. Cyanide stuns fish, making them easier to catch. The fisherman squirts cyanide inside coral reefs to stun the fish hiding there. Then he opens up the reef with a crowbar to get at the fish that is stunned. The cyanide itself also poisons the coral polyps, killing them.
Electricity is also used to stun fish, in a manner similar to that of cyanide. It also has detrimental effects on the reef.
Muro-Ami (kayakas). Muro-ami is a method of fishing where the nets reach the sea floor, and where divers are sent down to smash the reef, forcing the fish to get trapped in the net. A variation of this is when heavy sinkers are attached to the net, and these sinkers smash the coral. This kind of fishing is a very short-sighted method; after one run of catching coral fish, the reef is destroyed, and could not produce fish anymore.
While Muro-Ami is no longer as widespread as before, it is still done in some remote seas off Mindanao.
“Traditional Fishing”. Even some forms of traditional fishing at coral reefs could prove destructive to the reef.
Wrasses and Triggerfish eat “Crown of Thorns” Starfishes (as well as other ocean dwelling invertebrates). Traditional fishing at reefs may harvest too many of these fish that the “Crown of Thorns” Starfish will start multiplying, and then they will eat up all the corals.
Other Destructive Activities
Human Contact. Even casual human contact can damage reefs. Divers who look at reefs should refrain from touching them. They should also not “stand” on the reef. The coral polyps are so sensitive, that they will die with this kind of contact.
Boats that go out to reef areas should refrain from dropping anchor. Anchors can also destroy coral reefs.
Pollution. Pollution is also another way by which people damage coral reefs. Mine tailings very often get dumped at sea, and often in coral reefs. If there is too much organic waste dumped into the sea, these would result in plankton multiplying so much that they use up all the oxygen in that part of the sea, resulting in fish dying en masse and also corals dying.
Fishpond owners sometimes use poison to clean their fishponds. If the fishpond is near a reef, the corals may die because of the poison.
Responding to Coral Reef Damage
There needs to be a comprehensive approach to preventing damage to our coral reefs. This mostly involve have stricter laws against damaging corals, and stricter enforcement of these laws. At the same time, steps should be taken towards regional cooperation, as well as coral recovery.
Stricter Laws. There are laws against the harvesting of corals e.g. (particularly in RA 8550: Fisheries Code of 1998). However, the penalties are extremely low (e.g. 6 months to 2 years imprisonment, up to P 20,ooo fine, and confiscation for harvesting corals). In the face of the enormous profits that are made in this business, the penalty for violating these laws are puny. Congress should stiffen the fines and imprisonment for direct coral harvesting.
While it is prohibited to pollute the sea with mine tailings and other pollutants, there are no real penalties for these offenses. Thus, companies can go about polluting with impunity. Stricter laws and penalties need to be made against marine pollution.
Better Enforcement. Fisherfolk communities should be encouraged to form Bantay Dagat, one of whose tasks is to protect corals. They should be backed by their municipal governments, especially the police force. The Coast Guard should also be beefed up to help to enforce the law.
Coral Rehabilitation. Local government units should initiate coral rehabilitation activities and even help designate protected zones. Where possible, those who are found guilty of harvesting or destroying corals should be mobilized to help rehabilitate corals, as part of their punishment.