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Boracay corals dying fast, says group

/ 03:12 AM March 21, 2015
A coral reef rehabilitation group has raised alarm over the death of corals and marine species on the island-resort of Boracay in Malay town in Aklan. Richel V. Umel/ Inquirer Mindanao

A coral reef rehabilitation group has raised alarm over the death of corals and marine species on the island-resort of Boracay in Malay town in Aklan. Richel V. Umel/ Inquirer Mindanao

Is trouble brewing in Boracay, the country’s top tourist destination?

After concerns have been raised about the deteriorating water quality at a portion of the pristine White Beach of the island in Malay, Aklan province, a coral reef rehabilitation group has now reported mass dying of corals. The report, however, has been refuted by a business group that is also undertaking a beach management project, including the rehabilitation of corals.

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The Sangkalikasan Producer Cooperative claimed that its monitoring team observed the mass dying of corals and marine species during a semiannual survey conducted from October to November last year.

“Juvenile to century-old corals were succumbing and dying at a rapid rate and in massive numbers with nutrient indicator algae (NIA) smothering reef surface area (and) blocking out sunlight,” said Jojo Rodriguez, Sangkalikasan vice chair.

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Live hard coral coverage averaging 18 percent in 2013 dropped to 5 percent last year, survey results showed. A copy of of the survey was released to the Inquirer.

Algae proliferation

“NIA increased 90 percent, dominating the reef. Recently killed coral likewise increased due to multiple factors but mainly (due) to NIA dominance,” the survey said.

“If there are excessive nutrients in the water from human activities, such as sewage output, algae may proliferate on coral reefs, smothering coral and outcompeting it for space,” it said.

The team conducted the survey within its coral rehabilitation area in the northern portion of the 1,032-hectare Boracay. The area is 1.2 kilometers from the shoreline, with depths ranging from 8 to 15 meters.

Sangkalikasan has been undertaking the Code Blue, an artificial reef project there since 2011, which aims to rehabilitate the almost destroyed coral reef system. It involves placing 5,000 “reef buds” in a 2-km stretch parallel to the shoreline.

Coral reefs serve as home and nursing grounds of various fish species and as natural buffers for strong waves. Their destruction is caused by many factors, including increased sea surface temperature, unregulated tourism and overfishing.

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Crown of Thorns

The monitoring team, composed of marine biologists Elpidio Olaer III and Sim Ajeno, and reef checker Ernie Fiedra, also observed a population explosion of the Crown-of-thorns (COT) starfish, which feeds on corals.

One COT is normally found every 100 meters, but the team observed from 200 to 300 COT starfish every 100 meters, Rodriguez said.

The NIA and COT are indicators of high sewage pollution in coral reefs, he said. Their sudden increase is attributed to significant increase in nitrogen and phosphorus levels.

The high nitrogen and phosphorus content may be attributed to agricultural runoff, heavy sewage output, detergent, grease and oil discharge into the sea, according to the survey report.

The events can be linked to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) report on high count of fecal coliform bacteria in an area near drainage outfall, Rodriguez said.

Last month, the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) in Western Visayas reported that coliform bacteria levels in a drainage outfall in Sitio Bulabog in Boracay exceeded tolerable standards reaching 47,460 most probable number (mpn)/100 milliliters. This was way beyond the 1,000mpn/100ml standard for swimming areas.

The Bulabog Beach is on the eastern side of the island opposite the famous White Beach, the main swimming area. Bulabog is popular for water sports and activities.

The EMB attributed the high level of coliform to “domestic waste coming from residential and commercial establishments that failed to connect to sewer lines which go directly to drainage canal and empty into the coastal water.”

The presence of coliform along the White Beach is within tolerable levels for humans, Rodriguez said. For corals, however, the levels are lower.

Foundation reacts

Dionisio Salme, president of Boracay Foundation Inc. (BFI), refuted the report, saying that under the Boracay Beach Management Program (BBMP), corals and marine life had increased in areas previously identified for rehabilitation.

The BBMP, a project of the BFI, Malay municipal government and Petron Foundation, is an integrated community effort which aims to address the island’s environmental concerns brought by the booming tourism industry. It focuses on coastal resource management, watershed management, water and water-waste management, and solid-waste management.

Dive instructor Mike Labatiao, chair of the BFI’s committee on environment and trustee of the organization, said the report should be verified. Divers do not share similar observations, he said.

Jonathan Bulos, EMB regional director, declined to comment on the reported mass dying of corals, saying his office did not yet have the data of the Sangkalikasan team.

Mayor John Yap of Malay, which has jurisdiction over Boracay, did not respond to calls and text messages of the Inquirer for comment.

But in an earlier interview, Yap’s executive assistant, Mabel Bacani, who heads the secretariat of the Boracay Redevelopment Task Force, said the local government, in coordination with national government agencies, was addressing the problem at the Bulabog Beach.

Need for validation

Helen Catalbas, regional director of the Department of Tourism, said the agency would still validate the report. But she said the White Beach, Boracay’s main attraction, is safe as indicated by the DENR water quality monitoring report.

“The long beach is safe for swimming, while the Bulabog Beach is safe for water sport activities,” she told the Inquirer.

She said the reported increase of coliform level in Bulabog was being addressed by concerned government agencies, especially the DENR and provincial government of Aklan.

“We cannot afford that; because of this problem Boracay will be affected. Everybody is responsible for environmental preservation,” she said.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago has filed a resolution for a Senate investigation on the reported high level of coliform in areas in Boracay.

Citing a Jan. 20 report of the Inquirer, Santiago said it was “imperative for government to maintain cleanliness and safety of the waters of Boracay, which contributes immensely to the country’s tourism revenues.”

Congress “should intensify existing legislation aimed at mitigating the environmental impact of tourism activities,” she said.

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TAGS: algae, beach management, Boracay, coral reef rehabilitation, corals
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