How much is a coral reef worth?
On May 25, 2011, the country was jolted by horrific news. A coral reef at the Moro Gulf, off Mindanao Island, five times the size of Manila was deemed destroyed when 21,169 pieces of black coral, 196 kilos of sea whips, 163 dead hawksbill and green turtles, and 7,340 pieces of trumpet and helmet shells, all harvested from the reef were intercepted at the Manila port by Customs officials as they were about to be shipped abroad. Ludivina Labe, a Senior Marine Biologist at the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) described it as the decimation of an entire reef complex, and Customs Commissioner Angelito Alvarez put the blame squarely on the multibillion-dollar marine ornamental industry for exotic decorative species and coral-accented jewelry. The shipper and consignee have been identified are being hunted by the authorities as of this posting. But this story does not end here.
Last June 4, BFAR led a raid on the shipper’s warehouse in Zamboanga City, uncovering an estimated 30 to 40 tons of similar “marine products” roughly five times the volume of the previous discovery. A staggering chunk of marine habitat was taken just like that, leaving a severely impaired ecosystem in its wake.
How much is a coral reef worth? For so-called connoisseurs of exotic jewelry, a tiny chip of black coral with chain on sterling silver would cost about US$90 (internet price). About a hundred such chips can probably be made out of a single meter-long black coral. And then there are the turtle-shell eyeglass frames and decorative seashells. The cargo intercepted at the port of Manila is estimated to be worth about 35 million pesos or over US$800,000. If the stash at the Zamboanga City warehouse is five times that, the entire haul would be roughly 210 million pesos or US$4.8 million.
How much is a coral reef worth? For islanders enticed to gather the corals, turtles and shells, it is worth what they are able to sell to the middlemen. Likely, they make more money doing this than what they normally would make if they were to farm or fish. As reef fishes disappear to dynamite and cyanide fishing, corals, shells and other rarer marine life are the next to fall. Moving further and further out to sea becomes just another fact of life as the gatherers leave behind virtually lifeless reefs, if those can still be called that.
The BFAR’s website reports that “only 4 percent of Philippine reefs [is] in excellent condition (i.e., over 75 percent hard or soft coral cover), 28 percent in good condition (50-75 percent coral cover), 42 percent in fair condition (25-50 percent coral cover), and 27 percent in poor condition (less than 25 percent coral cover).” One can only wonder how much the numbers have changed since those statistics were determined.
Home to a very diverse aquatic species, coral reefs provide not just food but also livelihood, tourism included, for coastal communities. As people living off the sea for generations, they should be aware of the imperative to protect the little that remains of their reefs. And they are. Unfortunately, for the impoverished many, the gravitational pull of earning a quick profit, regardless of consequences, is too strong.
But not for others.
Barangays Sibaltan, New Ibajay, Villa Paz, and Mabini are four remote coastal barangays in the eastern part of the Municipality of El Nido, Palawan Island. Farming and fishing are the main sources of livelihood as tourists seldom venture into the villages. Roads are dusty during the dry season and muddy during the wet season. There are no restaurants and other tourist-related establishments, and the villages are not served by the provincial electric cooperative. Despite their distance from the more affluent, tourism-oriented and more developed town center of El Nido, the villages are displaying a keen appreciation of their place in the ecosystem they are part of.
Seeking to protect their coastal resource – 190 hectares of coral reef fronting the barangays as well as 974.63 hectares of mangrove forest – they asked for guardhouses, patrol bancas, marker buoys and signages, and communication equipment from Seacology. Cashew production equipment was likewise requested to support and strengthen their fledgling cashew industry, which provides a sustainable, ecologically friendly livelihood for the villagers.
On January 22 this year, the Seacology Expedition visited Barangay Sibaltan. Three patrol bancas were turned over in simple ceremonies, along with signages and communication equipment. The marker buoys were already there, just waiting for the anchoring blocks defining the MPAs to be set up. The cashew equipment were already in use, and their cashew products are selling briskly at the resorts of west El Nido. And, finally, despite a province-wide shortage of gravel and sand since December last year, the guardhouse in Barangay Sibaltan, with its own solar power, was finished and inaugurated last May 27. The only item left is the guardhouse still being built at Barangay New Ibajay, which they hope to finish by August.
The mangroves surrounding the four villages are thick, but the broad area on which it is located also provides cover for clandestine charcoal kilns. Foot patrols monitor the mangroves continuously, tearing down the illegal kilns whenever they are found. Lloyd Lumbania of the El Nido Foundation (ENF) says that through these efforts charcoal making within the mangroves is becoming more costly for the poachers. Hopefully they will soon reassess the profitability of their business and look for an altogether different source of income.
Poaching is also a problem at the Marine Protected Areas. Mrs. Carmelita Acosta, the feisty Kapitana of Barangay Sibaltan, along with the other barangay captains and the local fisherfolk association, organized the regular patrols of the MPAs. Several poachers from nearby Municipality of Linapacan had been apprehended since the MPAs were established last year, with parish priest Fr. Ed Parreno leading the citizens’ arrests.
The ENF reports that live coral cover in the MPAs range from 31-50%. The seagrass incidence of the area is greater than 50%, and serves as forage area for the endangered dugong. Dugong sightings have often been reported, and dugong feeding trails are frequently seen on the seagrass. Barangay Sibaltan in particular has also been identified as a nesting ground of sea turtles (Green, Hawksbill, and Olive Reedley turtles).
Unless the incidence of intrusion of poachers from neighboring municipalities is substantially reduced, maintaining the level of vigilance needed to effectively protect the mangroves and MPAs can become an costly endeavor for the villagers. Food and fuel expenses are just two considerations. A third and arguably most important is the time spent by those on patrol duty away from their regular sources of income. But these are sacrifices the villagers are willing to undertake to ensure that the their multi-use zones will remain productive. Also, plans are in the works to influence neighboring municipalities to establish their own MPAs and forest reserves as well. More MPAs and forest reserves in this corner of Palawan would mean more bountiful catches in the multi-use zones, and hopefully less reason for out-of-towners to resort to poaching in the no-take zones.
How much is a coral reef worth? For the villagers of Barangays Sibaltan, New Ibajay, Villa Paz, and Mabini, it is worth spending their time and, often, personal resources to vigilantly protect it. And that goes for their mangroves too.