The undersea horizon dims as a churning wall of bubbles, sand and zooming fish heads your way. You wish you can swim off … but you’re attached to a rock. As your brittle arms cradle a family of fidgety fish, the typhoon’s first wave hits – and the reef turns black.
Super typhoons Yolanda, Ondoy, Milenyo, Pablo and Pepeng have become household names. The damage they wrought on land is well-known – but what exactly do storms do to coral reefs?
Storms and typhoons continuously shape the composition, distribution and geographical range of the world’s reefs. Like plants, many corals take on forms best suited to their homes. Corals in areas pounded by strong waves have learned to grow dense, tough and compact colonies, while those in calmer waters maximize space to grow long, elegant but delicate branches. Solidly-built, rock-like species like brain coral can withstand much more punishment than branching or leaf-like corals.
When a super typhoon hits though, nasty currents are the least of a reef’s problems. Storm surges like the ones seen in Tacloban and Manila Bay can pull debris like logs and rocks out to sea, where wave action rolls them around, smashing the seabed in a brutal game of coral crush.
Sand stirred up by violent waves can smother and choke off corals plus other invertebrates like sponges and giant clams. Finally, too much rainwater can engorge rivers, causing them to discharge massive amounts of nutrient-rich mud, blanketing reefs and spurring blooms of fast-growing seaweed or algae which can outcompete corals for space and sunlight.
The result? Decades, even centuries of growth can be destroyed by a single super typhoon. Why is this a problem?
Coral Reefs Give Us Food
Because there are 5000 more Filipinos today than there were yesterday. With a 100-million strong population fuelled by a 2.36% annual growth rate, we’re going to have more mouths to feed daily. With limited land space and stronger, crop-destroying storms, Filipinos must look to the sea for food – and coral reefs form one of the most critical hubs of oceanic productivity.
Healthy reefs annually produce 30 to 40 metric tonnes of seafood per square kilometer. However, only 1% of the country’s reefs remain in excellent condition – the result of 60 years of overfishing, pollution and climate change effects like super typhoons. No reef is safe – even the largest, most established reefs are vulnerable.
The Apo Reef Example
Situated off Occidental Mindoro, Apo Reef is the largest in Asia and the second largest on Earth. It covers 34 square kilometers and hosts almost 200 coral species. Apo Reef Natural Park became a no-take zone in 2007, curbing illegal fishing activity. Fish biomass breached 76 tonnes per square kilometer. Even after full protection though, Apo Reef suffered extensive damage from super typhoon Caloy in 2006.
“It looked exactly like a freshly-deforested jungle,” recalls WWF-Philippines Mindoro Project Manager John Manul after the typhoon. “Giant table corals were uprooted. Broken coral branches were everywhere. Even the distinctive haze that envelopes burnt-out forests was replicated, because even after a week, the water was milky from stirred up sand.”
As super typhoons dramatically erode the capacity of coral reefs to provide Filipinos with seafood, we need to find better ways to protect those we still have.
Steps to Save Reefs
Estimates reveal that 10% of the world’s coral reefs are heavily degraded. About 30% are critical and may die in 20 years. Through a business-as-usual scenario, as much as 60% of the planet’s reefs may die by 2050.
Fortunately, some groups stand vigil to protect the country’s marine resources. WWF-Philippines is working with coastal communities, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Local Government Units (LGUs) of Sablayan and Cagayancillo, plus Cebu Pacific Air (CEB) to protect the country’s most important coral reefs.
Launched in 2008, Bright Skies for Every Juan enjoins CEB flyers to take an active part in minimizing the environmental impacts of air travel by making online donations to climate change adaptation projects, for both Apo Reef in Mindoro and the Tubbataha Reefs in Palawan.
“We are happy to offer our passengers an opportunity to support WWF-Philippines’ climate adaptation programs for Apo and Tubbataha. With everyone’s help, we can preserve these valuable resources and be part of the solution to climate change,” says CEB President and CEO Lance Gokongwei.
Bright Skies for Every Juan is considered a model in the country’s aviation industry for effective platforms to support climate change adaptation. Since 2008, CEB passengers have donated over P25 million to WWF climate adaptation initiatives for the two reefs, funding the procurement of patrol boats, establishing monitoring stations and conducting fish plus coral surveys.
“Though reefs have seen through millions of years of storms, the combined effects of climate change, pollution and overfishing might push some over the brink,” explains WWF-Philippines Vice-chair and CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan. “However, healthy coral reefs have a way of bouncing back – provided that they are shielded from human impacts. The full range of biodiversity contributes to overall reef resilience. By curtailing illegal fishing and poaching, we shall maximize their chances of recovery.”
Palawan’s famed Tubbataha Reefs, damaged by two ship groundings in January and April 2013, are slowly recovering due to the presence of herbivorous fish like surgeonfish, locally called labahita.
“Their constant grazing keeps algae from taking over the freshly-exposed rock,” notes Filipino coral scientist Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan. “It is because of them that coral larvae will be allowed to resettle on damaged reefs.”
Due to enhanced protection and improved fisheries management, Apo Reef is on the road to recovery. “Through the support of Cebu Pacific Air fliers and local communities, we will ensure that reefs can weather the storms of tomorrow, so Filipinos can continue reaping benefits today,” concludes Tan.
Though covering less than 1% of the seafloor, coral reefs harbour 25% of all known marine life. Spanning the waters of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and East Timor, the Coral Triangle hosts 75% of all known coral species. However, it is vulnerable to storms. The Philippines alone absorbs at least 20 typhoons yearly.
Broken coral branches blanket the seafloor. New corals will have a harder time re-colonizing rubble fields as they are unstable. Rock-like coralline algae will have to coat this area before new corals can settle. (WWF-Philippines)
Dead corals do tell tales. This upturned coral head bears testimony to the ferocity of storms. It will take years for new corals to replace this one. With continual protection though, coral reefs can recover, as they have from millions of years of storms.
A lively aggregation of Olive Surgeonfish (Acanthurus olivaceus) looks for algae. Their incessant browsing prevents fast-growing algae and seaweed from taking over damaged coral reefs.
For more information, please contact:
Mr. John Manul
Mindoro Project Manager, WWF-Philippines
Mr. Gregg Yan
Communications Manager, WWF-Philippines