The Visayan Sea located in the central Philippines is the richest area in the world in terms of marine biodiversity. The seas here were once flourishing with marine life, attracting tourists from all over the globe to dive and snorkel in its precious waters. Here, fish are a vital resource, comprising over 60% of the Filipino diet and providing an income for thousands of families. With the sunlight glittering on the smooth surface waters, it is easy to believe that the coral reefs are still as beautiful as past descriptions reflecting the islands’ splendour would have us know. Unfortunately, this romantic illusion is quickly destroyed when descending to the depth of just a few feet.
Sadly, the glorious natural wealth of this area makes it the target of several serious threats. Illegal fishing methods using dynamite and cyanide practiced in the region permanently destroy vast areas of coral reef, the demand for ornamental decorations has caused the near-extinction of giant clams, triton shells and other fascinating marine creatures for the curio trade and sewage, industrial waste and rubbish are heavily polluting the waters as they frequently pass untreated into the oceans. Furthermore, over fishing has depleted the fish stocks so severely that fishing communities are in crisis, giving them no option but to resort to extreme, dangerous and devastating fishing methods.
DU CARE 2007 was the fourth in a series of annual marine protection expeditions to this region. The team was composed of seven undergraduate students from Durham University in the UK working closely with Filipino representatives of the Coastal Dynamics Foundation and JCI. In the two-month expedition, the team carried out over seventy Reef Check surveys, analysing the health of almost 40,000m2 of coral reef. Presentations were conducted in several local schools and communities with the aim of promoting the importance of marine protection for sustainability. Informative posters and signs were installed in schools, municipal halls and prominent coastal regions to show the degrading effects of many human impacts on the health of the seas and to promote the laws about curio collection and fishing. Courtesy Calls were made to several NGOs, governmental organizations, local Mayors and barangay captains to discuss the coral reef situation and what needs to be done. Coastal clean ups were carried out to prevent rubbish from the beach from entering and damaging the sea. In addition to this, we also helped to support the small community of Apid Island, Cuatro Isla, where water is scarce and methods of storage have been very inefficient, by donating 18 water tanks. With each tank having the potential to support the needs of five households, 90 families were provided water.
The Reef Check surveys from DU CARE 2007 showed that the majority of coral reefs in the Visayan Sea are in a very poor condition. Far too numerous were the dives in which no indicator fish species were seen at all, with the only invertebrate species observed being pollution and over-fishing indicating diadema urchins. Only four out of the thirty-seven Reef Check dives that were carried out illustrated reefs in good condition. These reefs were located at Gilutongan MPA, Talima MPA, Jilantagaan MPA and Balicasag MPA. In these four areas, indicator fish species and giant clams were abundant, diadema urchins and crown of thorns starfish were barely present and there was an excellent covering of hard coral. These sites are model examples for other areas in the Philippines and are proof of the excellent benefits to a fishing community of establishing a marine protected area.
The great wealth of the Visayan Sea is at the fingertips of the local people and it is through their understanding and cooperation that we will be able to revive the marine ecosystem to its former prosperity, abundance and beauty. It was for this reason that DU CARE 2007 concentrated a large part of its efforts on educating the local people and school children on the crucial importance of protecting their seas. Information and education campaigns conducted in eight different schools taught students of all ages about threats to the reefs and things they can do to help to protect them. A group of five students were then selected to join us on a trip to the famous Gilutongan MPA to snorkel above the reef and see for themselves the spectacular success of this sanctuary.
The team has produced a five-year plan with challenging but achievable aims in the hope that a very great difference will be made to both the health of the coral reefs and the attitude of the local people in the Visayan region.