Coral predators, like the crown-of-thorns starfish, are among the stressors threatening the coral-rich Panaon Island in Southern Leyte
SOUTHERN LEYTE, Philippines – Deonel Beto, 42, dives the surrounding waters off Panaon Island in Southern Leyte for a cause. He and other members of his group, the Dap-ag Boys, spend their time conducting coastal cleanups and collecting crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS), a coral predator locally known as dap-ag.
“When I discovered diving, I knew immediately that this is what I really wanted to do. My experience with diving is amazing, but I still want to dive with a purpose,” Beto told Rappler in Cebuano.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his friends had been diving and spotting COTS, but were unaware at the time of how much of a problem these were.
“When we started to notice an overwhelming amount of COTS, we reported these to local officials,” Beto said.
COTS, which are covered in spikes containing toxins that are venomous to both humans and marine creatures, prey on nearly all corals and can eat their way through 10 square meters of it a year. During an outbreak – when 15 or more COTS are found in a one-hectare area – the starfish can strip a reef of 90% of its living coral tissue. According to a 2012 study, a COTS outbreak is considered the second major cause of the decline of the world’s coral cover.
For the past years, Southern Leyte has faced several outbreaks already. A July 2021 study found that the 2019 COTS infestations in the territorial waters of Liloan, Libagon, Limasawa Island, Malitbog, and Padre Burgos in the province were categorized under “active outbreak status,” with the number of collected COTS ranging from 15 to 53 in different reef areas.
The same paper noted that the causes of the outbreaks had yet to be determined. Several studies have also pointed out that the drivers of a COTS outbreak are still a poorly understood phenomenon.
According to Eva Abad, former head of the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Management Office, the infestations reported in 2019, 2015, and 2012 in Southern Leyte were often caused by an increased temperature of the seawaters.
Local government units and community stakeholders like Beto often collaborate in response to these outbreaks by conducting COTS extraction campaigns. These predators, however, are only among the stressors threatening the coral-rich Panaon Island, which is home to at least 56,000 residents and composed of the towns of Liloan, San Francisco, Pintuyan, and San Ricardo.
Known as the rainforests of the sea, coral reefs are important because different marine life like sponges, mollusks, crustaceans, fish, and reptiles find food and shelter in them. Other marine ecosystems, like seagrass and mangroves, are interconnected with them.
“Good coral reef can support various species of marine organisms that could greatly help in the protection and conservation of this very delicate ecosystem,” marine biologist Jerome Jack Napala told Rappler in an email interview.
The Philippines forms part of the so-called “Coral Triangle,” an area of high marine biodiversity stretching across multiple countries in the western Pacific Ocean, where more than 250 species of hard coral and plenty of soft corals have been documented.
However, the coral covers in the country have been in steady decline over the past decade. A 2019 study on the status of the nation’s reefs found that the country lost about a third of its coral reefs, with none of the sampled reefs in a condition that qualified as “excellent.”
In 2020, however, scientists and marine advocates led by Oceana Philippines discovered that more than half of the coral reefs surrounding Panaon Island were in good or excellent condition, with some areas enjoying at least 50% to 70% coral cover.
The reefs were also identified as among the 50 priority coral reefs with the potential to cope with the impacts of climate change and the ability to help repopulate neighboring reefs over time.
University of the Philippines Los Baños professor and marine scientist Victor Ticzon was one of the researchers who conducted an island-wide coral reef assessment in Panaon Island. He said “being able to locate a diverse and relatively contiguous coral reef area in the country that is in generally good condition and believed to be less threatened by climate change is truly exciting.”
In their study, the researchers found that the island has a high diversity of coral species, with an average hard coral cover at 39.72% – higher than the national weighted average at 22.8%.
“The result of the assessment presents an important conservation opportunity that could, in the future, help repopulate degraded reefs in the region,” Ticzon added.
Importance to communities
Results of a 2021 socioeconomic survey of coastal barangays in Panaon Island showed that majority of all respondents (95%) and fisherfolk (99%) believe that the coastal ecosystem or ocean resources are “very important” to their community, with 98% of them saying they use natural features such as mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs for fishing or gleaning.
The survey, conducted from February to March 2021, also found that over one-third of surveyed fisherfolk are reliant on nearly all their catch for food. Thirty-five percent of them kept 81% to 100% of their daily fish catch for personal or family consumption, while 45% kept over half of their catch.
According to Oceana marine scientist Diovanie de Jesus: “Healthy coral reefs support artisanal and commercial fisheries. Coral reef fisheries such as groupers and lobsters directly rely on the reef for spawning and habitat.”
De Jesus added that coral reefs also provide protection from waves, are sources of medicine, and support tourism and recreation.
For Jason Corporal, who has been fishing for over 20 years in San Francisco town, the presence of coral reefs meant an abundance of fish in their municipal waters. But this, he said, recently changed after Typhoon Odette (Rai) barreled through Panaon Island and its coastal ecosystem.
“When the corals were still there, the fish had plenty of food and could lay their eggs there. Our fish catch was higher,” Corporal said.
Like in other areas, natural stressors and anthropogenic hazards – such as weather-related damages, predator populations, marine pollution, illegal fishing, overfishing, and climate change – threaten the coral reefs on the island.
Napala, who was among those commissioned by the Department of Tourism in Eastern Visayas to survey dive sites in Sogod Bay after Typhoon Odette, said their team found that most of the coral reefs were damaged, especially those located in shallow parts of the water.
“Large and powerful waves from hurricanes and cyclones can break apart or flatten large coral heads, scattering their fragments. A single storm seldom kills off an entire colony,” Napala said.
According to Nanneth Aquiatan, a municipal agriculturist of Liloan town, they received reports of coral reef damages due to the typhoon, but assessing and validating the extent of the storm’s impact and implementing immediate interventions proved to be a challenge due to limitations in manpower and budget.
“In addition to weather, corals are vulnerable to predation. Fish, marine worms, barnacles, crabs, snails and sea stars all prey on the soft inner tissues of coral polyps. In extreme cases, entire reefs can be devastated if predator populations become too high,” Napala said.
He added that coral reefs damaged by natural threats were likely to recover if interventions were made in place.
“Human-caused or anthropogenic activities are major threats to coral reefs. Pollution, overfishing, destructive fishing practices using dynamite or cyanide, collecting live corals for the aquarium market, mining coral for building materials, and a warming climate are some of the many ways that people damage reefs all around the world every day. Mortality is between 90% to 100% if threats are not addressed timely and properly,” he said.
Ticzon also noted that reefs, in particular, were under threat from fishing implements like nets and gears and high density of COTS.
“It is important to immediately address these local stressors to ensure that the current state of the reefs is maintained,” he said.
There are at least 19 marine protected areas in Panaon Island initiated by local government units. These designated areas effectively improve the health of coral reefs by increasing coral cover and diversity and the fisheries of nearby areas through a spillover effect, where fish inside no-take zones in MPAs migrate to areas where they can be fished.
According to Mary Jane Honor, an ecosystem management specialist at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, local interventions such as this could only do so much due to limited resources, personnel, and jurisdiction of municipal governments.
To augment existing protection programs, Oceana is leading a campaign to include Panaon Island under Republic Act No. 11038 or the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (ENIPAS) Act, which will essentially declare the island a national MPA.
The ENIPAS Act gives permanent protection to an area and provides an annual budget to fund the conservation of this area. It limits, for example, fishing to only non-protected species and using non-destructive methods. The law also establishes a Protected Area Management Board composed of local government units, environment officials, indigenous peoples representatives, academe, and civil society organizations.
Oceana vice president Gloria Estenzo Ramos hopes that Panaon Island will be protected under national legislation by this year. She says most of the needed data for the protected area suitability assessment – a mandatory requirement to legislate a protected area – have already been gathered.
“What’s only needed is the public consultation [of local stakeholders]. That’s why we’re almost there [in declaring Panaon Island a protected area],” Ramos said.
Congress can then pass a law declaring Panaon Island a protected area under the ENIPAS Act. In a virtual forum on November 23, 2021, House Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda and Senator Cynthia Villar, chairperson of the Senate committee on environment, natural resources and climate change, committed to supporting such legislation.
“As a people who are highly dependent on a rich marine ecosystem, we have all the more reasons to protect it,” Ramos said. – Rappler.com