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An underwater apocalypse by a deadly starfish

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Coral reefs around the world are disappearing quickly and it’s all caused by a starfish.

 

Arriving at a beautiful cove nestled in Sipalay, Negros Occidental, my team and I were excited to explore the marine sanctuaries in the area. We have heard a lot about the amazing dive sites, though it is not one of the more popular tourist destinations, I could agree that it is definitely a diamond in the rough.

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Our first dive site is a known dive site called Sanken Island. You can feel the excitement as we put our gear on, but as soon as we hit the water, I recognize a nemesis I know very well, the deadly Crown-of-Thorns. The Crown-of-Thorns is a starfish that feeds on coral polyps and they can consume around 13 square meters of coral reef per year. So, to my dismay when I saw a cluster of them on one table coral, it was a heartbreaking site. We proceeded to dive on other dive sites around the area and it worsened as we moved southwest. We observed that the population of the Crown-of-Thorns increased from one individual to four in one square meter. We then concluded that this was definitely an outbreak that needed to be addressed.

 

We started to alert the stakeholders involved which included several resorts, local government units and the community that lead to a massive clean-up. We did three to four dives a day to collect the dreaded threat that our coral reefs face. After days in and out of the water facing this threat, we asked ourselves, how did it become this bad? The answer is plain and simple, overfishing. The-Crown of-Thorns are normally put in check by several creatures. Namely, the Triton Shell, which is usually taken from the reefs to make popular souvenirs, Bump Head Parrotfish, Puffer Fish, and Triggerfish, which are usually taken from the reefs and sold to different markets. All of these are unfortunately so overfished that they can’t control the population, which creates an outbreak so bad that it can wipe out entire reefs forever.

 

Though one of the best coral reefs in the world – Tubbataha Reef, located in the heart of the Sulu Sea, our reefs are already in critical condition. A nationwide assessment of the Philippine coral reefs was done in 2014 by Dr. Al Licuanan and the results found that the Philippines lost a third of it’s corals in just 20 years. The survey also concluded that 90% of our reefs are already in poor condition and at this state will not survive a massive outbreak of Crown-of-Thorns or a major bleaching, which is also a serious threat to our reefs. These facts are very alarming, and most of the time overlooked by the general public. As you go on with your everyday life, people don’t realize that our country is already losing entire ecosystems, just because it’s not something that’s commonly seen online or in the news.

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The Crown-of-Thorns outbreak is definitely a cause for alarm. As soon as we wrapped up in Sipalay and reported it via Reef Check Philippines, countless reports started rolling in that different communities have been seeing something similar in their area. We received reports from Iloilo, Anilao and Puerto Galera to name a few, and the thing about this massive threat to the Philippines coral reefs, is that it could have been easily avoided. With proper enforcement of the rules in Marine Protected Areas and following the fishing regulations, we wouldn’t be seeing this much of a threat today.

 

It really inspires me that despite this serious outbreak, more and more people are coming together to ensure that the rules in Marine Protected areas are properly enforced, and every day we see more and more advocates who are speaking up for the reefs who do not have a voice of their own. I hope that one day we can finally win against the people who do illegal activities that harm our precious marine ecosystem, so that many future generations can enjoy the beauty that lies beneath the Philippines Seas.

Posted 31 October 2023

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