De La Salle UniversityWhy must we assess our coral reefs?

Why must we assess our coral reefs?

University Fellow and Br. Alfred Shields FSC Ocean Research Center founding Director Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan, teams of marine biologists, and researchers from various disciplines and universities, conduct a national assessment of Philippine coral reefs to know their current state and health.

Marine Life Protection

The Philippine archipelago is comprises 7,641 islands and is home to some of the world’s most biologically diverse coral reefs. Researchers have found 505 coral and 915 reef fish species in the country’s rich waters. Outranked only  by Indonesia and Australia, the Philippines is also the world’s third coral-rich area, with 25,000 square kilometers of reef systems. Given how coral reefs are a huge part of the country’s geography and pool of natural resources, it’s only apt that a national assessment of it is conducted. 

In 2014, DLSU University Fellow Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan and collaborators from different academic institutions conducted the Nationwide Assessment of Coral Reef Environment (NACRE). The 93 million peso program funded by the Department of Science and Technology - Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (DOST- PCAARRD) was the first reef assessment in 40 years. “Since the last assessment was done in the 1970s, led by  Drs. (Edgar) Gomez and (Angel) Alcala, who are now both National Scientists, there was an urgent need for an update,” shares Licuanan. “The work of Drs. Gomez and Alcala showed that 5% of the reefs they surveyed years ago were in the “excellent” category.  That means at least three fourths of the surface was covered in coral. When we did our assessment in the last three years, we did not find any of those “excellent” category reefs. It shows there was significant reef loss over the last 40 years and that should be a cause of concern.” 

NACRE has five component projects focusing on corals, mangroves and sea grass, reef fishes, sedimentation,  and decision support. The last three areas were done in partnership with units from the University of the Philippines.

In surveying the country’s reefs, Licuanan and his team faced obstacles in logistics. The painstaking task of studying reefs was made even more tedious by the lack of accurate maps. Satellite images proved to be unreliable and the maps, misleading. The project was completed nonetheless and the results gleaned from the studies are now being shared and applied. “What our work also did was shift the paradigm in terms of how reef assessments and monitoring are done.

We are now in the stage where we are training people—especially in regional institutions of higher learning, regional universities—on how to do what we did at the national level, in a regional, but more detailed level.” 

Licuanan and his team have also shared their findings with policymakers, which, he says, is an ongoing effort. “There are some regulations, some rules, including presidential proclamations, that need to be updated because they’re still using numbers from 40 years ago. And the use of old numbers does have serious implications in terms of how we select reefs to protect, manage, and develop. If we’re going to save our reefs, we need to know where they are and map out the boundaries. We also need to know how they’re doing, what’s affecting their health. Most importantly, we need to make that information available to the people concerned.” 

While NACRE has given scientists and policymakers a wealth of information that could help with the conservation of our reefs, Licuanan points out that there is more work to be done. “The next phase is to move away from assessments and move towards monitoring. Why? Assessments tell us what we lost. Monitoring tells us what’s going on. Which means there’s a potential to still do something, to reverse the damage. We’re trying to push that shift now, and again, this is a shift  that must involve the coastal communities. We need to train more citizen scientists to do this at the local level and generate timely information in what’s happening to reefs. So we’re working on that project.”


…“Nacre” is the technical term for mother of pearl. This is the shiny part in the inside of shells.

...Some parts of our white sand come from fish poop? A healthy reef produces 1 to 5 kilograms of white sand every square meter, every year. White sand is essentially ground up coral skeleton.  One of the organisms that help grind it down are large parrot fish that munch on coral and the sand they are not able to digest comes out of the other end of those fishes.

Marine Resource Enhancement Project

The DLSU Br. Alfred Shields FSC Ocean Research Center (SHORE), in partnership with local governments and non-government organization Pusod Inc., pursues the rehabilitation of coastal areas in the Philippines. It is initially implemented in Lian, a town in Batangas province that lies at the south of Metro Manila. The Marine Resource Enhancement Project will be replicated in the neighboring coastal shores of Nasugbu. 

The project has two main components: The first part involves training and seminars for local government officials and members of the community—to enable them to become more aware of their roles and responsibilities in the project, as well as opportunities in their monitoring their own reefs.  The second part involves the construction of concrete artificial habitats, which will serve as fish feeding and hiding places. These structures are also meant to provide surfaces for baby corals to settle on. 

SHORE’s Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan shares that the project has generated jobs and opportunities for the town’s fishers, who are encouraged to be proactive in the protection and management of their marine resources. Guided by the concept of adaptive management, he sees the project as a way to constantly learn from and a challenge to iteratively improve on.

Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan is a University Fellow and founding director of the Alfred Shields Ocean Research Center. 

He is a recipient of the NAST Environmental Science Award.

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