Rebuilding underwater cities: Impact assessment of coral rehabilitation in Mabini, Batangas

by Erika Mae Cabangon, Reulene Jezreel Matalog, and Maria Thresha Ursolino

To the untrained eye, the beaches of Anilao in Mabini, Batangas can only be three things—crystal clear water, rocky shores, or scenic diving sites. A quick visit to its coastlines can leave tourists in awe because of its picturesque view depicting the perfect summer getaway.

However, not everything is visible on the surface, and there’s so much more beneath the perfect waves that only a few know about. Anilao is deemed as a hotbed for marine biodiversity considering its close distance to the Verde Island Passage, which houses 1,700 fish species and 300 coral species coexisting within just a 10 square kilometer area.

As a scuba diving instructor, Salbe has witnessed it all. His journey of 12 years has allowed him to see both healthy and unhealthy corals, depending on the current state of the water and its temperature. Unfortunately, Salbe expressed that he has noticed the destruction of Anilao’s corals due to both environmental factors and human activities.

Photo Courtesy: Jonathan L. Mayuga

This emphasized the need for coral restoration programs and led to the implementation of the Filipinnovation Coral Rehabilitation Program. Following this, an impact assessment, the PhilCORA Project, was conducted by the School of Environmental Science and Management (SESAM) in 2017 to measure the effects of the said initiative. In the words of Salbe, this program has led to the growth of coral reefs and the increase of fish abundance, eventually benefitting their income.

“…tumubo na yung mga coral, ‘yung mga isda dumadami so mas lalo silang [tourists and scuba diving students] natutuwa na mag snorkel doon sa harapan ng resort. So malaki ‘yung epekto, nadadagdagan ‘yung kita namin.”

Correspondingly, the PhilCORA Project presented a significant difference between the fish biomass in areas close to coral restoration sites and those in areas remote from these sites. The people who live close to restoration projects also earn around 4,000 pesos more per year than those who do not. Another vital finding is that the community expressed their willingness to pay 200 pesos to ensure the protection and restoration of coral reefs, which will then positively affect their livelihoods.

The destructive practice of dropping and dragging anchors from boats on the surface leads to the breakage and dislodging of corals on the sea bottom. (VERA Files, Ferdie C. Marcelo)

Coral reef destruction: A threat to divers and fisherfolk

According to Salbe, one of the main causes of coral reef destruction in Anilao is the use of destructive fishing practices and gear.

“Boatmen and dive boats use anchors to moor their vessel to the sea bottom and go to the ocean. These anchor lines or anchors are one of the causes of coral destruction,” he explained.

Additionally, the diver also said that there are unlicensed diving and fishing sites that use large nets for fishing that can potentially hit or strike the coral areas. 

Due to these destructions, the marine biodiversity of Anilao in Mabini, Batangas is at stake. A survey conducted by Haribon Foundation in Mabini revealed a decrease in fish abundance as well as in the overall condition of the coral reefs. Salbe shared that since a lot of fish are dying, some scuba divers are unable to bring tourists or students to the areas to see the corals and fishes as part of their jobs.

Apart from the tourism sector, the fishing industry is also at risk due to coral reef destruction. In the Philippines, a total of 1.99 million fishers and 0.35 million fish farmers were recorded in 2019, making fishing as one of the major sources of livelihood. In Mabini specifically, fishing is one of the sources of income with the municipal fisheries producing a total of 1,814.14 metric tons in the first quarter of 2022.

Hence, the sources of income of divers and fishermen are being compromised.

Seeking solutions

The necessity for coral reef rehabilitation has been highlighted by the ongoing destruction of coral reefs caused by human activity and the results of climate change. However, the term coral rehabilitation can be an object of confusion as it is understandably still a new concept for many. 

Coral rehabilitation, or coral restoration, refers to techniques and approaches that restore damaged coral reefs using both natural and human-made processes. As corals become damaged through years of exploitation and ignorance, efforts are now being made by some to rectify them.

How do you restore corals?

Generally, coral restoration can be done by planting nursery-grown corals back onto reefs, removing invasive species present, and reintroducing natural predators to help them to thrive. In the Philippines, one of the methods of coral rehabilitation being implemented is coral transplantation.

According to Vohra in 2021, coral transplantation involves the relocation of a coral from a site with inhospitable conditions to a site where it has a higher chance of thriving. This technology aims to improve the ‘quality’ of reefs in terms of coral cover, biodiversity, and topographic complexity.

The restoration of coral reefs is beneficial to biodiversity as coral reefs provide fish habitat. Coral reefs are home to almost 25% of all marine life from small herbivorous fish to large predatory fish. Additionally, coral reefs protect coastal communities by acting as a shield against strong waves caused by storms, floods, and other natural disasters. 

Coral reefs also play a big role in the country’s economic value and food security. The fisheries sector contributed 1.2 % and 1.3 % at current and constant prices to the gross domestic product in 2018. Moreover, a study in 2019 showed that each Filipino consumes an average of 34.27 kg of fish and fishery products per year. 

Significant intervention in our reefs is needed in order to minimize their damage, improve worsened environmental conditions, and ultimately save our reef ecosystems from extinction. To address this, a Non-Government Organization called Filipinnovation took initiative in restoring corals via direct coral transplantation which was pilot-tested in Batangas, Bohol, Boracay, and Tawi-Tawi. The project started in 2012 and ended in 2013.

Assessment methods used in the PhilCORA Project

The PhilCORA Project sought to analyze the outcomes of the coral transplantation technology in terms of biophysical, social, and economic aspects. Team member Christina Corales shared why it is crucial to conduct an impact assessment in the context of coral restoration.

“There needs to be an evaluation since the investment for the project is huge, and there were plans of scaling it up.”

SESAM used two methodologies to determine the results of its biophysical assessments. One is a common method to estimate ground cover called the point-intercept method. Additionally, photo transecting also helped the team to have a more detailed analysis.

Meanwhile, the socio-economic assessment was carried out using a choice experiment, a common method under economic valuation. This helped them estimate the community’s willingness to pay. The team also used propensity score matching to compare the income of communities with and without coral restoration sites.

“An impact assessment generally looks at the input and the outcome of the project, whether it generated positive benefits, and whether it is cost-effective given the investments put into it,” SESAM’s research specialist Gabriel Villancio explained.

Moving forward

“The reef rehabilitation is actually a good project as it generated benefits not just for the biophysical but also for the livelihood of fisherfolks around the area,” Corales shared about their assessment of Filipinnovation. However, she also pointed out that restoring the corals must not only be a one-time project.

Two recommendations can be gleaned from the PhilCORA project. One of them is the enforcement of limiting activities for the long-term protection of coral reefs. More Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) could be established to ban, or at least minimize, human-induced stressors in corals. These are overfishing, destructive fishing practices, waste disposal, and unsupervised tourism activities. Currently, there are 13 MPAs, including marine parks and fish sanctuaries, in the town of Mabini.

“The benefits of the rehabilitation program would not be realized if there are no protective measures. It would be a shame that the investment to restore the corals is big, and then you just neglect it afterwards,” Corales asserted.

Another recommendation is the collection of environmental fees from tourists. This is to finance monitoring activities that will ensure healthier reef ecosystems. In 2018, the municipal government of Mabini has already started a 50-peso additional tourists’ fee to fund the management of garbage left by the tourism industry.

Romeo Trono, a marine conservationist, also stated in a report by Inquirer that the government must provide financial support for the mooring of buoys, so that boats would be kept anchored and avoid destroying corals near coastlines.

As part of the ‘center of the center’ of marine biodiversity, the local government of Mabini continues to partner with DENR CALABARZON, their NGO partner Green Fins Members – Batangas Community Divers Seal, Inc., Bantay-Dagat volunteers, and people’s organizations for marine conservation initiatives, such as regular coastal and underwater clean-up drives and IEC materials to share knowledge about coral reefs.

For now, Salbe said that the best they can do as divers is to contribute in simple yet impactful ways. He encourages his fellow divers to raise awareness among their diving students, collect trash from the water, and observe sustainable diving practices. Since “prevention is better than cure,” the challenge is to prevent destructive activities than to restore damaged corals.

Photo Courtesy: Ruslan Gilmanshin