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What’s right, what’s not about RP coral reefs
Source: Inquirer
Author: Doris Gaskell Nuyda
Date: 2001-03-02
IF you’ve marveled at the beauty, color and diversity of undersea, especially in our coral reefs, then the new book, "Philippine Coral Reefs, A Natural History Guide" by Alan T. White (Bookmark, 2nd edition, 2001) will sharpen your interest further.

When I first read this book, I realized, as all uninitiated probably would, that I had to go back to it again and again to really understand the busy world under the ocean. But even if you’ve already visited this watery frontier as a professional scuba diver or marine biologist or as a student, the book is sure to enhance and update your knowledge by its detailed descriptions, its classifications and great photos taken by various enthusiasts including White himself.

From the author’s descriptions and text, one gets a good idea of how familiar he is with this world, unknown to many of us landlubbers, and how much he loves working in and for it. He has, in fact, several books on the subject to his credit.

White’s biodata on the book’s inside cover informs us that he has been diving in Philippine reefs since 1978 while a Peace Corps volunteer. He later joined the Silliman University Marine Laboratory in Dumaguete City to help establish the Sumilon Island Marine Park, the first municipal government coral reef protected area in the Philippines. He has since become involved in other marine conservation programs, and furthered his educational attainments. Today he is deputy chief of party of the Coastal Resources Management Project in the Philippines, supported by the US Agency for International Development and "continues to scuba dive and monitor coral reefs in the Philippines."

The book, as its title informs us, is a guide. The different species and classes of reef life—plant (algae, seagrasses), fish, invertebrate (sponges, crustaceans, mollusks, etc.) and animal (reptiles, mammals) are listed, often with accompanying photos, for easy identification.

Those who are used to seeing the underwater world as a big panorama of swaying seagrasses, ever-moving fishes of all colors and sizes, get to know each reef denizen in closeup. For the neophyte, it is bound to be an overwhelming introduction.

First, there is a description of the coral reefs and how nature created them hundreds of thousands of years ago. Then we learn of the different zones in which the reefs thrive (high water or supra-tidal, mean tide or inter-tidal and low water or subtidal). The lower and deeper the submersion of the reefs, the more abundant are coral growths and living creatures in it.

Like most living things, however, these undersea creatures are subject to stress like exposure to wave action and predators among their kind, and lately, man.

Underwater gardens

White helps us to understand why animals and plants keep close to other living things in their ocean habitat, and why coral reefs look like gardens. These "gardens," he explains, are actually groupings of seagrasses, anemones, sponges, polyps and different corals where coral animals like jellyfish, crustaceans, mollusks, moss animals and seamats and a host of fishes, make their home. They group together in symbiosis, for protection and food. There is much interaction among the coral-fish community, spurred on by water current and waves, sunlight and plankton. Movement here can be slow, as in the swaying of the grasses, but it can also be frenetic as when schools of fish flash back and forth. But always, there is rhythm.

To the environmentalist, the book provides further proof of why our oceans and coastal waters must be protected. It is common knowledge that coral reefs are habitats and breeding ground of many types of undersea life, which are necessary to maintain healthy ecosystems. They also provide man with a rich, nutritious source of food.

Of the plant life, algae perform an important ecological role. They are primary producers of photosynthesis, meaning "they capture the sun’s energy and use it to produce sugars and other complex compounds by storing energy." In this way, they manufacture organic food and oxygen—two very important substances for sustaining life on this planet.

Food from under the sea

Among the edible algae, there is the green lato, used for salads. There are the brown types eaten by people in Northern Luzon. There are also those that look like "fleshy, tangled twigs" (varying in color from red to emerald green) known as "peso" and "gulamang dagat."

Substances from these algae (phycocolloids) are also used commercially in the preparation of food, drugs and cosmetics, and are becoming important export products.

Seagrasses, like algae, are also primary producers and are grazed on by sea turtles, dugong and some fish. People use them as fuel in dried form, as packing material, fodder, fertilizer and in some areas, as food.

Every now and then White inserts negative data on the reefs, which should serve as warnings to environmentalists as well as divers, fishermen and all those who use the ocean in one way or another. He does not put these down in whole chapters, but what he says about the future status of coral reefs in the Philippines should be warning enough.

It is not good, he says, "when we consider that the many human impacts affecting reefs are increasing. Less than 5 percent of reefs in the Philippines are still in excellent condition. The shorelines of many large islands... have all but lost coral reef growth due to increased silt in the water and other forms of pollution. This is attributed to population growth and coastal development that does not prevent environmental impacts."

White also mentions "physically destructive fishing methods, overfishing, boat anchors and other intrusions which have reduced natural production of useful reef organisms for human consumption and other economic uses.

"This decline in natural productivity," he concludes, " causes poverty and the loss of potential revenues from a marine tourism market." Inquirer News Service

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