COTS is one of the world's biggest starfish, feeding on stony corals and maturing into an adult after two years. (Photos from COT Terminator Team)

The outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) in various diving sites in El Nido poses a danger not only to the coral reef but also to the local community since the management program will no longer be supported due to volunteer funding shortages.

According to Ryan Christopher Cañizares, a tourist worker and volunteer diver, the COTS invading in 2009 but was contained and handled. From 2019 until the present, its number has been steadily increasing, and it is now considerably higher than it was in 2009.

As witnessed by volunteers, coral reef degradation rose in 2020, he said.

The collecting is typically done twice or three times each week by the group. (Photos from COT Terminator Team)

“Tingin ko ito ay dahil sa pandemya at hindi ito nabigyan ng — hindi kasi nasusubaybayan, lagi siyang problema. Ito (clean up and collection) ay dapat nag-start last year pa, noong pandemic. Ang balak sana namin ay mag-Manta Tu– kaso nga lang, hindi kami naka-move forward noong time na ‘yon dahil hinarang kami ng IATF dahil bawal daw ang gagawin namin, magkakaroon ng activity talaga ‘yon,” he said.

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COTS were gathered mainly from Tapiutan Island, a portion of Matinloc Island, Bebeladan Island, and Pangulasian Island in Bacuit Bay, a stretch of El Nido municipal water, according to Mariglo Laririt, Ten Knots’ director of Environment and Sustainability.

Caizares said the highest volume gathered in one location since their work began in August is approximately 1,270 COTS, while the team from Ten Knots in El Nido Resorts collected over 900 during their own collection.

When there are more than 30 COTS in a hectare of corals, it is called an outbreak. COTS occur less than one in a hectare.

The COTS is one of the world’s biggest starfish, feeding on stony corals and maturing into an adult after two years. COTS have the capacity to coordinate spawning in one region, according to Ten Knots’ educational material, and a female starfish may deposit up to 60 million eggs in a season.

When the crown-of-thorns starfish consumes coral polyps, it leaves the exoskeleton of corals which bleaches, according to Laririt. It will take 10 to 20 years for a coral reef to recover from an outbreak.

Challenges in COTS collection
Cañizares said the Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO) initially supported the fuel for boats before they ran out of budget. While the group looked for those who could provide and support gasoline and food for the team.

“Sa last five rounds namin, doon na kami nahirapan kasi wala na si LGU, wala na rin daw sila maibigay talaga. Hindi rin namin puwede iwan dahil itong mga volunteer talagang gusto rin nila matapos kung kakayanin,” he said.

To keep the activity going, the club held three fundraising events for the equipment, including the special tool purchased online. However, the group’s ability to continue operations is hampered by a lack of financial backing.

Cañizares stated that a kind of poison administered by a syringe paralyzes the COTS and releases its hold on the coral, allowing it to be removed without damaging one of its limbs.

The collecting is typically done twice or three times each week by the group.

Even the private sector admitted that the activity is not easy as it involves expenses.

Stressing COTS may result in the release of sex cells for its spawning, Laririt says it is critical for volunteers to fully understand the science of collecting it. (Photos from COT Terminator Team)

“Hindi lang ganoon-ganoon lang, you don’t just go there and grab the crown-of-thorns starfish, meron protocol — ang crown-of-thorns starfish, it can regenerate its arms kapag siya ay naputol. At kung ang arm na ‘yon ay may portion ng pinaka gitna ng starfish, halimbawa hati-hatiin, dadami siya, puwede siya mag-grow back ng kaniyang parts,” Laririt said.

Stressing COTS may result in the release of sex cells for its spawning, Laririt says it is critical for volunteers to fully understand the science of collecting it.

“Una, hindi kakayanin ng isang grupo lang. Pangalawa, you really have to have a methodical approach to this, hindi pwedeng barabara lang. Meaning, you may have very good intentions pero kung kulang ka sa scientific backing or training or kung hindi mo alam kung ano talaga kalaban, baka may ma-harvest ka na mali o baka matusok ka,” she said.

Laririt said that now that there is a COVID-19 pandemic, residents have time to assist in the collection of COTS. However, owing to the lack of tourism activities, which is the town’s primary source of income, the mobilization of resources and money becomes a challenge.

Ten Knots’ two-day operation involving 15 staff costs approximately P25,000 to P28,000 including fuel, salary, and food.

Even the MENRO has ceased providing fuel due to a lack of funds to allocate for the activity; nevertheless, focal person Meriam Arzaga said that they are seeking assistance from the local finance committee.

“Since ang activity na ito ay unforeseen, ito ‘yong disadvantages na ‘yong natural occurrences na hindi naman natin na-predict. Wala talaga kaming fund for crown-of-thorns control program, ‘yong logistics namin– ‘yon ay kinukuha namin sa existing programs na napondohan for this year. Halimbawa ‘yong program sa enforcement, binawasan namin para may magamit sa crown-of-thorns,” Arzaga said.

A temporary break from COTS collection
Cañizares said that due to the limited budget, the group of volunteer collectors might need to take a break from the collection. The group is supposed to conduct one remaining round but due to the contribution of volunteers from their own pockets, it is possible to be extended into three more rounds before taking a break.

“Fund pa rin ang challenging sa amin, kung saan namin kukunin. Kagabi, nagpaalam na rin. Hindi na kami sure kung makakabalik pa kami uli pero may last round pa kami kasi may remaining balance pa mula sa na-fund raise– nalulungkot nga rin ang team dahil hindi pa kami tapos pero wala nang funds. Nahihiya na rin kami magpa-fund raise– wala na talaga,” he said.

“Sabi ko sa grupo, hanggang dito na lang ang kaya natin, wala na, hindi na talaga kaya. Iyon ang challenging, ‘yong fund talaga kasi sa bawat galaw namin ay may perang involved,” he added.

Ten Knots’ two-day operation involving 15 staff costs approximately P25,000 to P28,000 including fuel, salary, and food. (Photos from COT Terminator Team)

He said the Malampaya Foundation will still continue its effort to collect, however, its area of concentration is only limited due to fund allocation.

“Ang kinakalungkot ko rito ay sayang ang naumpisahan, malapit na, nandoon na kami sa dulo, malapit na malapit na talaga tapos biglang titigil. At the same time, spawning pa ng crown-of-thorns ngayong October hanggang January. So kapag napabayaan ito mag-spawn, by next year meron na naman, balik zero na naman, sayang ang effort, sayang ang gastos,” he said.

The operation to collect COTS is costly, according to MENRO, with the first five operations costing about P205,000. According to Arzaga’s estimates, approximately P5 million is required to sustain the activity assuming all costs and requirements are monetized.

With the present outbreak, it is preferable to do the procedure three times a week or every day if funds are limited.

Arzaga added that if the group does cease, it will only be for a short time since they are awaiting approval of the supplemental budget, which they expect to get this October.

“Sa ngayon, kung ma-stop man ‘yan, hindi ibig sabihin na stop totally. We’re just waiting for the approval of the request ng budget. Actually, we have requested since July pa kaso alam naman natin na ang gobyerno ay may proseso na dapat natin sundin– pero hindi ibig sabihin no’n ay nag-stop na ang local government,” she said.

Contributing factor of the outbreak
COTS are a part of the marine ecosystem, according to Laririt, and there is no way of knowing when they will be eradicated.

“We cannot say that we will be able to eradicate the crown-of-thorns no matter how much you do. Itong mga ganito ay also striven to resolve itself. Ganiyan naman ang nature, kapag dumami nang husto ang predators tapos wala na kumakain sa kanila– darating ang point na sobrang dami na nila. Magkakaroon sila ng competition and they will die out naturally,” she said.

To keep the activity going, the club held three fundraising events for the equipment, including the special tool purchased online. (Photos from COT Terminator Team)

MENRO said that it is concentrating not just on marine areas but also on land conservation since algal blooms are one of the food sources for immature COTS.

“Isa sa factors contributing doon sa pagdami ng crown-of-thorns na tinitingnan namin ay ‘yong pagtaas ng nutrients level ng ating dagat na nagko-cause din ng pagdami ng algae na siyang nagsisilbing pagkain ng crown-of-thorns kapag bata pa. The higher rate ng survival kapag bata pa, the higher rate din ‘pag adult na kakain ngayon ng corals,” she said.

Arzaga further said that the enforcement would be beefed up since the COTS spread is being exacerbated by a decrease in predators, such as the giant triton snail.

Posing threat and its effect
The COTS possesses numerous spines that carry toxins that are damaging to human skin. To relieve discomfort, a person who has been pierced by their spine should soak the punctured area in hot water for 30 to 90 minutes. Remove any spines with tweezers and clean the wound with soap and water.

Aside from the impact on people, the outbreak also presents a serious danger to the tourism and fishing industries. It could also wipe out the coral reefs in El Nido.

“Komunidad talaga ang unang tatamaan bago ang turismo– ang turismo ay ngayon na lang, ang community ay nandito na before pa. Kung magpapatuloy siya, both ay magiging apektado,” he said.

“Malaki rin impact nito sa fisheries, intricate, marami siyang magkakaugnay-ugnay na posibleng mangyari. Tayo naman, naniniwala tayo na ‘yong environment has its own way of recovering kung ano man ang stress ang kanilang nadadaan pero kailangan din ng effort mula sa mga tao na siyang contributory sa pagkasira ng ating environment,” she added.

Community active involvement
The volunteers are from the groups’ El Nido Tour Guide Association, El Nido Divers Association, Malampaya Foundation, Ten Knots Inc, and MENRO.

“Ang volunteers natin, sila ‘yong masigasig. Hindi naghahanap ng kung ano, pagkain lang sila ay masaya na,” he said.

Cañizares participation in environmental initiatives began when he was a young volunteer in 2001. Being a native of El Nido and a parent drives him to continue to protect the corals in the area.

“Siyempre may mga anak din ako na gusto ko na makita nila ang El Nido na maganda. Kahit ‘yong reef, gusto ko na makita rin ng mga anak ko ‘yong kung ano ang ganda ng underwater one day. At saka doon nakadepende ang komunidad, kung wala na tayong coral reef, wala na fishes,” he said.

The protection of the environment is not only for the sake of the tourism industry but also to conserve the fishery sector which is the main source of livelihood in El Nido before the development of tourism, he added.

Laririt said that various volunteers, most of whom are tourist professionals, prioritize their areas of emphasis depending on the places that visitors are most likely to visit. They also examine the condition of the reef that has been hit the worst.

El Nido has a high degree of environmental awareness, as well as a desire to help and even volunteer, according to Laririt. However, owing to the pandemic’s struggle, some residents are unable to join since they must care about their own demands, particularly in terms of money.

“Kaya we are trying to coordinate, all these efforts para hindi na ma-duplicate at halimbawa dumaan ka doon ngayon tapos wala ka na pampabalik kinabukasan, then you can tell the others na ‘doon ay marami pa, hindi pa namin naubos. Maybe you can go there, ganon’. Kasi kung sasabihin mo na strike anywhere ka, hindi ‘yon efficient,” Laririt said.

“Kaya kahit gaanong effort towards the environement nakikita ko, ‘yon talagang dugo’t pawis na talaga ‘yan kasi kumbaga we are talking about now versus the future. Kung ngayon tapos ang dami mo kailangan gastusan tapos sasabihin mo mag-volunteer ka muna for the future, talagang another level of volunterism na rin ‘yon. I really appreciate na kahit mas bawas kesa last year kung saan may savings pa ang mga tao, ngayon may nagvo-volunteer pa rin. Alam mo na truly sacrificial level na ‘yan,” she added.

The MENRO said volunteer activities are very beneficial, particularly when a local government unit’s budget is limited. Arzaga, on the other hand, said the majority of the money in the LGU was used to administer COVID-19, including the source for the environmental program.

“Hindi lang masaya, hindi ko masabi– hindi ko ma-describe kung paano ang tuwa. We commend ‘yong the private sector particularly itong grupo nila sir Ryan (Cañizares), during the preliminary preparation– alam naman natin na ang funds ng local government ay halos natutok sa COVID,” she said.

“Una, LGU ang nag-initiate, pumasok agad ang tulong nila– sa ngayon kung tutuusin ay sila ang nag-spearhead ng activity, hindi na kami. Sobrang tuwa– sa part namin, nakakalungkot isipin na ang government which should be the forefront sa ganitong bagay, hindi namin magawa ‘yon dahil sa limitations pero doon sila na pumapasok,” she added.

Arzaga thanked the private sector, saying that their participation and cooperation with the LGU are some of El Nido’s distinctive characteristics.

Control program and management
Even the COTS will naturally die, the question is if the affected coral reef will recover or not, Laririt said. That is why human intervention is needed.

“Dapat, habang walang outbreak, in and out of season, whether may turista o wala. Everyone, must do their best to make sure that reefs are healthy, in what way? Syempre hindi mo babagsakan ng angkla, hindi po bubuhusan ng basura– many ways that you can do to help reefs stay healthy,” she said.

(Photos from COT Terminator Team)

MENRO stated that after around 11 years, this outbreak re-occurs in El Nido. It becomes unforeseen as they cannot predict when it would happen again. Arzaga expressed her hope that once the budget was released, they could help in the resumption of operation in collecting COTS.

It will also include COTS as a regular program under MENRO, she added.

“Magkakaroon na ng programa na magiging part na siya ng regular, in case dumating man siya sa mga hindi natin inaasahan na pagkakataon. Kahit papaano ay may mapagkukunan,” she said.

Preparation for tourism industry’s re-opening
Cañizares wants to keep up the work they’ve begun until the tourist sector in El Nido reopens completely.

Arzaga also wishes the same saying that one of the goals of the MENRO is to resolve the outbreak before the resumption of the tourism industry’s full operation. However, based on their experience, it will not be done immediately.

“Sana habang wala pang turismo, sinasabi nga rin ng volunteers, habang bakante pa kami, marami pa ang bakante sa amin na handang tumulong ay sana pursigihin na namin na gawin. Dahil panigurado pagbalik ng turismo, wala na naman, mabibilang na lang kami sa daliri ang magvo-volunteer dahil ‘yan ay babalik sa kanilang hanapbuhay,” Cañizares said.

“Bago pa man mag-full operation (ang tourism industry) o kahit hindi full, kung kakayanin, ay matapos itong crown-of-thorns. Pero hindi siya sa ganon kadali, based on experience kasi namin before sa crown-of-thorns control program– hindi iyan in three months time, hindi natin maganon,” Arzaga said.

According to Arzaga, the outbreak has not yet reached the inner reef in inner bays, but it is becoming worse as time goes by, based on their monitoring in June. She went on to explain that although El Nido is an exception, other communities are seeing rising COTS as well.

“Kung ang nearby municipalities natin ay hindi rin gagawa non, posible rin na hindi namin ito matatapos nang maaga. Ang Linapacan mas nauna sila, kung hindi ako nagkakamali last year or two years ago ang outbreak nila– kung El Nido lang sana pwede sabihin na ganito lang population pero nagmo-move kasi ang crown-of-thorns. Ang iba dyan ay galing sa malayong lugar na dito napadpad, ‘yong iba lumalakad din, lumilipat ng reefs,” she said.

Arzaga said that with the outbreak, their strategy is to select potential areas which remain diverse to focus on and save coral reefs. Their goal is to sustain the operation of COTS collection as long as there is an outbreak.

“In case ma-wipe out man ‘yong buong area, may ilan-ilan reef area na na-secure na siya magiging source ng rercuit ng corals para maka-recover ‘yong ibang reefs sa susunod na panahon,” she said.

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is one of the senior reporters of Palawan News. She covers agriculture, business, and different feature stories. Her interests are collecting empty bottles, aesthetic earrings, and anything that is color yellow.