MANILA, Philippines — The megadiverse nature of the Philippines is an open secret not known by many. Not only is the country located within the Coral Triangle, known as the world’s focal point for marine biodiversity, it is at the very heart of this region. The Philippines is also home to 70% of the planet’s plant and animal species.

Critical ecosystems like seagrass beds, coral reefs, estuarine zones, and mangrove forests all serve to keep the Philippines’ biodiversity balanced and thriving. Notable examples these vital ecosystems are mangrove forests found in Palawan and Panay, and the Verde Island Passage—the waterway separating Mindoro island from mainland Luzon.

Yet these are among the most affected by climate change and human activity. These ecosystems are at a sharp decline. 

From about 450,000 hectares in 1920, satellite data estimates peg the country’s mangrove cover at 227,808 hectares as of 2019 (the government’s Forest Management Bureau 2020 estimate, however, is more optimistic at 311,400 hectares). A 2020 study identified the Philippines as among the countries with the highest total mangrove loss in the world.

This dwindling trend is also true for both coral reefs and seagrass beds. Over a third of the country’s reefs gone over the past decade according to a 2019 paper, and 30 to 50% of seagrass cover lost in just the last 50 years. Certain seagrasses have also been included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list for locally threatened species.

Such developments are concerning, as these ecosystems maintain ecological balance among the marine animals living in the area and nearby human communities. 

These systems provide habitat for marine animals, safeguarding intricate relationships formed between these organisms as a way for them to flourish. Mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs all serve as protection to smaller or nursing fish, promoting healthy ecological development. Larger creatures such as turtles also use these habitats as food sources, where they can graze on corals and seagrasses. 

The benefits of these systems for humans are immense too. They provide food, regulate and improve water quality around the coast, protect against the catastrophic effects of storms,  and serve as among the world’s largest stores for carbon—exceeding the sequestration capabilities of terrestrial ecosystems.

World’s biggest carbon sink

Mangroves are seen in this photo. (pixmike via Unsplash)

Urgent concerns about climate change have recently paved the way for “blue carbon” movements that seek to conserve and protect these coastal and oceanic ecosystems. As the largest heat and carbon sink of the planet, much of the carbon sequestered by the ocean is due to the presence of these ecosystems

Mangrove forests, for instance, can sequester four to five times as much carbon given the same area as compared to terrestrial forests. And while seagrass beds only cover less than 1% of the earth’s surface, they contribute about 10% of the ocean’s yearly sequestration.

Additionally, these ecosystems grow more rapidly than terrestrial forests. This means that there is greater potential for carbon to be absorbed and used by the plant, alongside being stored and fixed into the seabed, where it can remain for thousands of years

Some studies also indicate the possibility of using seagrass as a way to combat ocean acidification, a phenomenon caused by increased carbon dioxide converting into carbonic acid in waters that can eat away at corals, shellfish, and affect marine food sources.

These marine ecosystems, however, are in a race against time as the threats they seek to mitigate grow more intense. Warmer oceans can lead to coral bleaching, with acidification contributing to the degradation of coral structures.

Sea level rise can also overwhelm mangrove forests faster than the trees can adapt. Human activity can destroy seagrass beds, and unsustainable fishing practices can lead to the destruction of many other ecological systems.

Conserving Philippine marine ecosystems

Communities play an important role in the implementation and the success of conservation and protection initiatives. Currently, much of this responsibility lies in the hands of local government units, making these efforts prone to local and national political dynamics

Nevertheless, one successful way of protecting these resources is through the designation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). There are about 1,800 MPAs in the Philippines, mostly designated by local government units while some are legislated by Congress.

However, not all MPAs are managed properly. A 2008 study revealed that only 10 to 15% of the established protected areas in the Philippines are managed effectively. More work is also needed to protect as many areas as possible. A 2010 study found that the distribution of MPAs does not accurately represent important biodiversity zones, with only 2.7 to 3.4% of reefs considered under protection

A 2022 update from the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), however, reported that 65,267 hectares of coral reef areas​​—or 8.2% of the total 796,000 hectares—are within protected areas under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS).

The Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System or E-NIPAS, passed into law in 2018, sought to expand the NIPAS Act of 1992 by increasing the amount of protected areas, and strengthening initiatives by the government at both the local and national levels. Protected areas are declared and designated through the discretion of the DENR, local government units, and the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources

When these protected areas are managed well, they give the ecosystem a chance to bounce back. For instance, a 2020 study showed that MPAs are better equipped to support more fish than its surrounding waters, even after storms.

With the necessary legislation in place, consistent and efficient implementation of these measures is crucial, along with the active involvement of local communities. Ultimately, these coastal ecosystems not only serve marine life, but are also vital in our collective fight against the climate crisis.

 

This story was supported by the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines