Volunteers pose next to a batch of crown-of-thorns, which they manually removed from coral reefs.

While the tourism industry is idle due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, local tourism workers in El Nido have banded together to conduct cleanup activity in some destinations particularly by removing droves of dreaded crown-of-thorns starfish.

Through crowdfunded support, SCUBA dive instructors provided their skills and resources to remove the starfish, which have overrun some of the town’s dive spots.

According to tourism worker Ryan Christopher Cañizares, the town’s Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO) held a meeting in early August with representatives from the tourism sector, asking for help to remove batches of crown-of-thorns. The removal is part of the local Manta Tu program, a continuous effort to control the outbreak.

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When they began the cleanup on Thursday, Cañizares stated that they collected a total of 200 starfish. On their second day, they removed more than 600.

“Marami na, pwede ko na siya mai-consider na outbreak. Imagine sa isang table coral na may laking one square foot, merong tatlong crown-of-thorns,” Cañizares said in an interview.

So far, the team has cleared Payong-payong, Popolcan, Pacanayas Island, and Inambuyod Island. The cleanup is still going on, especially now that tourism workers have no guests to entertain.

“Ang lagi nga namin sinasabi sa kanilang mga divers na samantalahin ang pagkakataon habang wala pa ang turismo at sapat ang mga pagkakataon,” Cañizares added.

Cañizares also organized a call for cash donations so that volunteers could buy removal kits, as supplies were limited.

Crown-of-thorns starfishes are considered pests to coral reefs because they feed on organisms living inside the corals. Its natural predator, the giant triton snail, faces dwindling populations due to poaching for its prized shell. Reefs overrun by crown-of-thorns are also signifiers that the corals are weakening due to coral bleaching or pollution, according to marine experts.

Using a special type of toxin delivered through a syringe, the crown-of-thorns gets paralyzed and relaxes its grip on the coral, making it easier to remove without leaving one of its limbs.

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is a senior reporter for Palawan News who covers politics, education, environment, tourism, and human interest stories. She loves watching Netflix, reading literary fiction, and listens to serial fiction podcasts. Her favorite color is blue.