Paradiso Rito and Redeem the Reef Project – A glimmer of hope for Verde Island Passage
We met Charlie Gamboa at the 2017 Shanghai DRT tradeshow. Charlie introduced us to the Sea Paradiso foundation and the reef restoration project that they are doing. Homer Hernandez writes more details about this project, the challenges they encounter, their methodology and the results they are obtaining.
Verde Island Passage (VIP) is considered to be the center of the center of marine shorefish biodiversity and special attention to marine conservation efforts in the Philippines is justified because of the identification of it as an epicentre of biodiversity and evolution (Carpenter and Springer, 2005). According to these scientists, there is a higher concentration of species per unit area in the Philippines than anywhere in Indonesia, including Wallacea. VIP lies about halfway between the provinces of Batangas and Mindoro in the Philippines and this area is an all-time favourite for both local and foreign dive tourists and one of the spots, Mabini, Batangas, is considered as the birthplace of scuba diving in the Philippines. VIP connects the surrounding provinces of Batangas, Marinduque, Oriental Mindoro, Occidental Mindoro and Romblon.
VIP is in Peril!
Despite this importance, this area is in great peril! Signs of degradation are everywhere due to combinations of both natural and man-made causes. More frequent increases in water temperature result to bleaching of corals in many parts and this is associated by some scientists to the climate change the world is now facing. More frequent and stronger typhoons are also being noted for creating havoc to shallow coastal areas and coral reef environments. The stresses from tourism result in a lot of broken corals in almost all the dive sites frequented by scuba divers. Eutrophication or fertilization of the water due to irresponsible land-based activities and practices coupled with overfishing encourage faster growth and increasingly wider coverage of algal assemblages thereby competing with corals in space. In most areas, solid wastes and ghost nets are scattered everywhere despite the yearly coastal clean-up event being conducted around each locality. These signs are not hidden from any keen observer in the marine environment but usually being ignored and most of the times even denied by the very people benefitting from these resources. These problems are the same problems present in almost every coastal area in the Philippines but have only been much highlighted recently in the world famous resort island of Boracay in the province of Aklan. It would not even be noticed much and the resort and business operators would still be in denial if not for the Philippine president calling the whole island as a “cesspool” (https://www.rappler.com/nation/195703-duterte-warning-close-boracay). The situation in the tourist areas is “Business as usual” so as not to disrupt the continuous flow of income and profit from the marine resources while intentionally “closing the eyes the ears” from the reality that these resources are finite and have limitations. While these signs are observed and ignored, the degradation continues and with an alarmingly increasing rate.
Fisheries in the area are declining with decreasing catch and increasing prices of this precious protein source. Underwater, the scene is the same with smaller representatives of almost every fish species and their bigger counterparts seeming to have vanished, a sign of decreasing fish biomass. This would also translate to less efficient grazing to aid the coralline community in its fight against the space competing algae.
Management Strategy Options- the cheaper way to preserve VIP
These problems can be addressed with the least cost by employing good management strategies for the coral reef and marine resources combined with a strong political will of the local governments, cooperation among the stakeholders and support from national government agencies. This strategy, however, is yet to be realized and there is not a single spot in the whole Verde Island Passage where a concrete implementation of this strategy is in place. There had been recent attempts like the declaration of the whole VIP as a marine protected area but the implementation is still in its infancy and the local situation everywhere is still wanting for improvement. Irresponsible practices which are partly to blame for the coastal environmental problems now being observed are still very common and are still the norm all over the areas within the VIP. There are also local efforts here and there but to realize the end goal of having an effective coastal resource management for the whole Verde Island Passage may still be very far from being achieved. It is always very challenging to implement management strategies for very large areas with various provinces and localities with a different belief system, practices and priorities.
Local efforts on declaring smaller more manageable spots as a community-based marine reserve or protected areas within the confines of the VIP maybe another option which can be tapped. With the complications and challenges of maintaining a very large protected area, the option of smaller inter-connected protected areas may be much more practical in the implementation aspects. Being usually community-based and having the concept of local ownership, locals have more enthusiasm and eagerness for protection and strict enforcement of management measures considering that these areas are directly affecting their overall welfare and livelihoods.
The next option deals with law enforcement as the Philippines already has an adequate set of laws to protect these resources. The challenge with this option is getting enforcement agencies to really do their job and enforce the laws. It takes stronger political will on the part of the local executives in view of various pressures not only from big coastal resource businessmen like commercial fishing operators, resort operators, power plant operators, and other big industries in the coastal areas, but also from local illegal fishing practitioners whose support and votes are always being sought every election season. This option requires a very good balancing act not only for local executives but also for the ones enforcing the law in situ. This must be the reason why until this very moment, strict implementation of fisheries and environmental laws in the coastal areas around Verde Island Passage and in the whole country is yet to be realized.
In view of the environmental degradation that is happening in other popular tourist areas in the Philippines, computation of local carrying capacities is another option. This is usually done by experts in this field which would result to establishing particular concrete figures regarding the maximum allowable number of tourists, fish catch, boat traffic and other impacting activities which can be easily absorbed by the coastal environment without resulting to degradation. For pro-active local government units, this study followed by the sustained implementation is done during the infancy of the concerned activity or before the activity reaches its peak in order to preserve the very resource which brings them revenue. This makes the activity environmentally and economically sustainable but like most management measures, an actual implementation of the science-based limits is the biggest challenge.
Establishment of close-season is tried and tested for sustainability of both wildlife and fisheries resources. It is already being implemented for sardine fishery in some parts of the Philippines. However, this strategy is yet to be implemented for tourism-related activities which can allow various impacted coastal resources to recover and bounce back from the assault it constantly receives. One very good example of an application for this strategy is done in a dive site in Pulang Buli. in the island municipality of Tingloy in Batangas which has been closed to divers for more than 10 years. This is just a very small area in comparison to all the dive sites scattered all over the towns of Mabini and Tingloy, but it can be used as a good starting point and a sterling example that it can be done. The biggest challenge for implementing this strategy is how to present it to and be accepted by profit-oriented businessmen and show the long-term bigger benefit of allowing the coastal resources to rest and recover from all the impacts brought about by human endeavours.
With all these possible options, everything is easier said and planned than done. It takes a concerted effort, paradigm shift, time, and strong political will for these management strategies to be in place. For all the written documents to this effect, there is only a handful of very special cases where the management strategies are applied effectively and most are still waiting for further enhancement and full implementation to be realized. In some cases, when national agencies are in full speed with the implementation, the LGU’s and the local stakeholders are just lukewarm about supporting the strategies as they think they are just being dictated by higher-ups who do not even know the intricacies in the local scenarios. Other cases, maybe very aggressive initially only to slowly wane and be forgotten with years only to revert back to the old ways. Time is not on the side of conservation and while the stakeholders disagree and delay the implementation of management strategies, the coastal resources of Verde Island Passage deteriorate continuously. The coastal environmental management “dance of balance” takes time and detailed considerations of the nitty-gritty aspects before really being realized and that is the reason why other concerned groups just resort to the more costly ways of coastal resource enhancement, rehabilitation and restoration.
Coastal Ecosystem and Coral Reef Rehabilitation – the costly price of greed, neglect and apathy
While our coastal environment continues to deteriorate, the situation just seems normal to everyone and as long as their daily lives are not gravely affected, nobody really cares. Businesses relying on the marine resources go on with the usual “harvests” until they notice the decline. Tourists and locals just enjoy the attractions until they realize that these attractions are loading with wastes and various damages. Other people just take everything for granted as the underwater degradations are not visible to them anyway. The vastness of the coastal environment and even our oceans also have their limits and sooner or later, everybody will be directly or indirectly affected and will realize the gravity of the destruction. This usually prompts for drastic and costly actions as an offshoot of decades of neglect and apathy.
Coral reef rehabilitation
The coral reefs all over the Verde Island Passage, just like the other reefs in the world, are under grave threat. In the dive tourist areas, broken corals are scattered in the sites and trash are ubiquitous. Algal growth is starting to show unprecedented rates due to inadequate browsing and eutrophication (too much fertilization due to inputs from sewage and agriculture). With this scenario, concerned groups are starting to do something about it. People are learning the techniques and science of coral transplantation and reef rehabilitation and applying the newfound techniques locally. This is despite several laws prohibiting such exercise which is exclusively reserved for research institutions, academic institutions and government agencies. Concerned groups and even individuals cannot just take for granted the environmental downslide happening right before their eyes so they gather broken coral fragments and re-anchor those “corals of opportunity” relying only on just bits of citizen science they read in popular websites and magazines. This requires scuba diving, knowledge on differentiating coral fragments and re-anchoring these coral fragments into the coral reef itself hoping that those fragments re-calcify itself to the reef and flourish once again. Sometimes, they do constant/regular monitoring while most of the time just rely on luck for the survival and reattachment of transplanted corals. By the level of effort, time, and cost invested in this exercise, this is very costly and without the guidance of strong science, this is bound to fail.
Coral nursery establishment
On the other hand, some relatively more knowledgeable groups engage into an establishment of coral nurseries in sheltered areas with the hope that the small coral fragments they gather will grow and produce more transplants for future utilization. This concept is borrowed from terrestrial plant nurseries. The argument usually presented is that if they grow small coral fragments into bigger ones they can just do fragmentation later and produce more coral transplants without harming healthy colonies and without resorting to gathering much more number of “corals of opportunity” (broken fragments which still has live polyps). The problem lies with additional costs to set it up, longer waiting time to repopulate the reef with corals as it would take years to grow the small fragments into bigger colonies, additional steps in the rehabilitation process and limiting the number of corals of opportunity gathered and rescued. For areas with a very limited number of coral species and “corals of opportunity”, nursery set up is a must. In the areas within the VIP, the bigger priority is maximizing the number of live broken corals rescued and reattached. Coral nursery set up in these areas may be considered as next priority considering the big number of “corals of opportunity” waiting to be rescued by reattachment. More broken corals are even added every week with the big numbers of tourists frequenting these areas and with every anchor thrown in the coral reef.
Artificial reef deployment
With the coral reefs around the VIP being continuously impacted, live coral cover, as well as available fish habitat, is reduced. This trend signals the introduction of artificial habitat or artificial reefs (AR). These are usually made of concrete which is intended to increase the rugosity of an otherwise flat sandy or muddy area. Rugosity, being a factor for fish recruitment, is increased with this installation of AR’s. With the cost of construction labour, materials and deployment of these structures, a huge financial support is needed. This enhancement program also requires technical guidance especially for deployment site selection as there were a lot of misguided AR installations previously. Even up to this moment, AR’s can be seen on top of coral reefs which has damaged a lot of corals during deployment, while in other places these artificial habitats are seen on top of seagrass meadows. There was also some mistaken beliefs that artificial reefs will become coral reefs in the future. Some opposition to this activity also must have witnessed the old ways of using this artificial habitat as a lure for fish only to be caught in big aggregations and even encourage overfishing and/or illegal fishing in the area. Misguided AR installations are both costly and destructive for the environment so this activity should be taken with adequate technical guidance and consideration. Careful site selection and subsequent protection is a must for these installations to really become environmentally beneficial as marine refugia where organisms can thrive without being endangered.
Reef ecosystem establishment
A combination of AR installation and coral transplantation is also a viable option in some areas. The concept is to “create” a mimic reef ecosystem in barren areas by installing artificial habitat to increase the rugosity of these areas and introducing coral fragments in these installations. The addition of hard corals in the setup has several advantages. As the corals grow, the rugosity/structural complexity of the area increases thereby increasing the available niches for various fishes and organisms to settle. These corals, being food to some organisms, will attract fishes and other reef-associated organisms. Transferring the corals from their origin to the developing mini-ecosystem somehow also increases the possible source of coral larvae for repopulating nearby natural reefs once they start reproduction. Corals of opportunity transferred to the setup will also be taken away from the typical stressors in the source reef which are the very reason for their breakage.
Aside from these, the developing ecosystem will also become a very good venue for research on various aspects of ecosystem development and may also attract tourism being a novel approach to address the continuing degradation observed in the natural reefs. This approach, however, needs strong scientific and technical guidance, to become successful as basic biological requirements, adaptation, competition and even aggression in the coralline and reefal community should all be taken into consideration for this setup. This knowledge on ecological processes to select appropriate sites; coral genera selection and spacing; artificial habitat design, spacing, and assembly and other factors vital for this setup to flourish as a developing ecosystem.
Succeeding long-term protection (declaration of the ecosystem as a reserve or protected area) is a must for this setup to reap the expected ecological benefit. Once this setup slowly approaches its climax as an ecosystem, it will become a magnet to irresponsible exploitation without adequate protection which will lead to its downslide and all the expenditures and efforts will just be wasted.
Sea Paradiso Foundation and its mission to “Redeem the Reef”
With this bleak situation in the Verde Island Passage, Sea Paradiso Foundation started with a dream –a healthy coralline ecosystem where marine organisms can grow and thrive without the threat of man-made impacts in a small spot within the Verde Island Passage and make it replicable in other spots. This is a simple and noble dream borne out of the degradations observed around the dive sites in Anilao in Batangas, the birthplace of scuba diving in the Philippines. The most practical location for realizing this dream is the sandy area in front of Paradiso Rito Resort, away from the maddening diving crowd, an area which is not a dive site and deprived of coral reefs where no fishing activity is observed and a spot which is easily accessible from the resort which will be the foundation’s home in Batangas - Paradiso Rito Resort. The resort, owned by the father of the foundation Charlie Gamboa, will not only be the foundation’s home but will become the center for the realization of its mission. The realization started with the foundation’s first project of establishing a mini-ecosystem with artificial habitat installation coupled with introduction and seeding of various reef-associated organisms gathered nearby.
Mr. Gamboa started incubating the idea around the middle of 2017 after conducting a dive in one of the experimental sites for coral rescue where he saw the possibility of gathering broken coral fragments and re-anchoring them in concrete artificial habitats and steel rebars hammered halfway into the sand. The site is only around 350 meters from the Paradiso Resort. He observed several genera of corals which were re-anchored and growing in the area and also observed the multitude of reef fishes and other reef-associated organisms already residing in the experimental site. This site created wonders and excitement in his mind as the area is comparable to the sandy environment in front of Paradiso Rito. This prompted him to start the search for the people responsible for setting the mini-ecosystem up which lead to a name – Homer Hernandez, who was known to the local folks as the marine biologist and a scuba diving instructor who provided his technical expertise to set up the small project. Later, Charlie also found out that reef rehabilitation is this guy’s advocacy and he has been setting up small projects and training other divers in a lot of other places for more than 20 years, starting way before the term “reef restoration and rehabilitation” even became a buzzword. Charlie was able to get the guys’ contact information in no time and started communicating about his plans for Paradiso Rito.
Charlie Gamboa’s dream started being woven into reality by first providing artificial habitat to an otherwise flat and simple sandy environment in front of his resort. This installation intends to increase the area’s rugosity which is a factor for recruitment of marine organisms. A religious theme formed into solid figures and became “Christ and the Apostles” through the artistic rendition of master artist Fil Delacruz, one of the Philippines’ most established artists who is famous for his “Diwata” series. These sculptures made from steel rebar with a concrete base were then deployed one by one with the assistance Homer Hernandez, who agreed to help in setting up the planned mini-ecosystem. Aside from the sculptures, other metallic substrates of tabular forms were deployed for the needed hard substrate and structural complexity.
Mr. Hernandez, believing scientific method is the key to success in this endeavor, obliged to get baseline data on September 28, 2017, which is days before the deployment of the art installations underwater. Through Fish Visual Census or FVC (a scientifically accepted technique for assessing the fish community in an area) resulting to a fish biomass of slightly less than half a kilogram (476 grams) contributed by only 9 fish species present in the site. Being a plain sandy area, not a single coral genera was observed.
After deployment of the art installations, “corals of opportunity” (broken coral fragments with live polyps) were gathered from a nearby coral community and re-anchored into the metal tables and in some parts of the sculptures. These coral fragments are of various sizes and not a single piece was taken or broken from a healthy coral colony. Corals introduced in the area include the genera Acropora, Porites, Fungia, Euphyllia, Seriatopora, Turbinaria, Lobophyllia, Heliopora, Stylopora, Pocillopora, Galaxea, Pectinia and Merulina among others. Some more hard corals were added on September 30, 2017.
From then on, regular maintenance and monitoring are being done and close observations of the coral transplants and their space competitors are also noted. The transplants were also observed after several weather disturbances occurred in the area and surviving corals were noted. Changes in the fish community within the setup were also observed that on February 10, 2018, there were already about 3.2 kgs. of fish biomass in the area contributed by 26 species of fish belonging to 15 families. Despite the wrath of the “amihan” (northeast monsoon) and several typhoons, the preliminary results are very encouraging.
More hard substrates (rocks and boulders from the shore and around the setup) and metallic structures (pyramids) were added to the setup creating better structural complexity to the developing mini-ecosystem. As the “amihan” ends, the setup will be experiencing much gentler wave action as it welcomes the giant clams (Tridacna gigas) from the UP Marine Science Institute (UPMSI) in Bolinao, Pangasinan which will be seeded into the prepared hard substrates. Dr. Patrick Cabaitan of UPMSI already assessed the area’s viability for clam seeding and gave his nod of approval. As planned, the giant clams arrived on the early morning of May 10, 2018, and were seeded immediately into the prepared substrates (rocks piled inside metallic cages). Fifteen individual four-year-old giant clams were distributed around the setup with depth ranging from 10 to 15 meters with the assistance of Mr. July Curiano of the U.P. Marine Science Institute – Bolinao Marine Laboratory.
The area will receive more substrates, coral transplants and giant clams from time to time as its development progresses and the monitoring cum observation continues. All these efforts and observations shall continue until the setup becomes a fully functional ecosystem (self-populating, reproducing, and contributing to the biomass and larval production not only of itself but of the neighbouring ecosystems). The work does not end with this establishment as protection is a must. Local ordinances for the area to be declared as a marine reserve or marine refugia will be pushed. This will further strengthen the realization of Sea Paradiso Foundation’s vision of establishing a coral reef gene bank which will have a ripple effect to neighboring ecosystems in Verde Island Passage.
The last monitoring conducted on May 18, 2017, resulted to 45 fish species belonging to 22 fish families. With the total fish count of 1466 individual fishes, the fish biomass computation went up to around 37 kilograms which could be largely contributed by the newest residents in the setup composed of several big-sized sweetlips (Plectorhinchus chatodonoides) and lined catfish (Plotosus lineatus), and also the schooling jacks (Carangoides ferdau) which happened to be passing by the area at the time of the observation.
This last monitoring also recorded at least 22 genera of hard corals, a resident cuttlefish, 15 giant clams, and an assortment of sponges, tunicates and algae. Preliminary observations were done in the limited time of 8 months, 4 particular coral genera namely Turbinaria, Goniopora, Euphyllia and Lobophyllia seem to stand out in terms of survival percentage and resistance against silt.
The area is now being regularly visited by scuba divers and underwater photographers from as far as Puerto Galera, a resort town in the neighbouring province of Oriental Mindoro. Their accounts describe the area as a haven for critters and photogenic organisms.
From the very simple objective of ecosystem establishment, more dreams and concrete plans are added into the foundation. More and more substrates will be deployed through time. The area will now also become a venue for other artists to install their artworks and make functional arts – artwork becoming substrates/residences for reef-associated organisms. The foundation also plans to replicate the effort in other areas. Establishment of giant clam hatchery is also being considered by the foundation. Dive scholarships are also seen in the future to empower the succeeding generations within the fishing villages and shift their livelihood away from fishing to lessen the pressure of exploitation of marine resources. It will also offer the developing ecosystem as an in situ laboratories for academic researches and studies. It also envisions to support all endeavors pertaining to marine resources conservation and more studies on coral reefs’ climate change adaptation.
For more information about Paradiso Rito visit: https://www.paradisorito.com/