Dr. Anticamara (in white polo) Dr. Siringan (in green shirt)

A substantial part of the coral reefs in Sabina Shoal, located in the West Philippine Sea, had perished, resulting in an ecological catastrophe, experts from the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UPMSI) have reported.

Dr. Jonathan Anticamara of the UP Institute of Biology stated at a media forum held last Friday, June 7, that after their research in the area, they discovered that it is suffering from massive coral bleaching, adding that the corals are undergoing various stages of death.

“What we found ay extensive na yung bleaching and almost 100 percent na patay na yung corals,” Anticamara said.

He stated that the observed stages of coral development include an early phase in which they become brighter as a result of intense stress, followed by a process of whitening or bleaching, during which some corals become covered with algae.

Anticamara elaborated more that there is presence of brown algae covering the corals, indicating a stage where recovery becomes unattainable, consequently triggering the gradual disintegration and collapse of the corals.

The existence of brown algae, he stated, marks an irreversible threshold, culminating in the physical deterioration of the coral structures.

“So ang interpretation ko dito is that [there] is really an ecological disaster for Escoda. And if this happens all across WPS, kasi kung naala-ala nyo, pumunta rin kami sa Pag-asa and we saw that degradation, mataas din ang pagkamatay ng corals doon. So ibig sabihin, the West Philippine Sea now is really in a very alarming and severely degraded stage,” he added, emphasizing the high level of biodiversity loss in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

(So my interpretation here is that there is really an ecological disaster for Escoda. And if this happens all across WPS, because if you remember, we also went to Pag-asa and we saw that degradation, there’s also a high coral mortality rate there. So it means that the West Philippine Sea now is really in a very alarming and severely degraded stage.)

Given the current state, he expressed that it would be hard for the corals to recover, and they will face a struggle in the next few years unless action is taken. What is needed most right now is extensive monitoring and additional research on how to help them recover from the “challenges not just from the thermal stress but the fact that the entire coral structure is crumbling down.”

Drawing from their observations during the expedition, his recommendation would be to conduct regular and wider monitoring of the waters of WPS to truly understand the situation and address the problem effectively.

“Gaya ng sinabi ko nung una, I think ang priority ng mga Pilipino is ma-ensure na mapangalagaan natin yung resources na ito kasi napakahalaga dahil wala nito sa ibang bansa,” he said.

(As I said earlier, I believe that the priority of Filipinos is to ensure that we protect these resources because they are very important, as they are not found in other countries.)

“Napakalaki ng responsibility ng mga Pilipino na mapangalagaan ito so monitoring and management, scientific options on how can we recover, manage and conserve an ecosystem that is under an ecological disaster,” he added.

(The responsibility of Filipinos to preserve this is immense, so monitoring and management, along with scientific options on how we can recover, manage, and conserve an ecosystem that is under an ecological disaster, are crucial.)

Anticamara saw both coral damage and a decrease in fish numbers. He clarified that the remaining fish predominantly feed on algae, while the ones that depend on corals are decreasing in population.

He refers to the loss of biodiversity as local extinction, which he considers to be the most significant challenge facing humanity.

Chinese researchers’ presence
Anticamara observed the presence of Chinese scholars conducting research activities, indicating their uncertainty about their intentions.

Dr. Fernando Siringan, also of UPMSI, further elaborated on this by stating that although the Chinese scientists conducted surveys, their exact objectives remain unknown.

“If it’s biology, well and good. They might be able to come up with information about the biology of the area na mas malaki kesa sa na-gather na ng Pilipinas (that might be bigger from what the Philippines gathered),” Siringan said.

He, however, surmised that the Chinese might be up to something else because they saw some sampling pits where samples of dead corals were taken.

Siringan thinks their Chinese counterparts are trying to establish how sturdy the corals or the surface are.

The movements of the Chinese research vessel monitored by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) suggest that they have conducted acoustic surveys.

“Likely, detailed mapping of the seafloor to inform them of the detailed shape of that area. Sa assessment namin (In our assessment), they definitely have a plan for that area, the fact that they are there in large numbers and they station themselves in strategic points,” Siringan explained.

“And their activities suggest that they’re gathering information that could be of use to them in the future,” he added.

Moreover, Anticamara emphasized that the primary concern lies with the millions of Filipinos who rely on fisheries for sustenance and livelihoods. He noted that the extensive damage observed may not only affect the WPS but also other shallow reefs across the Philippines.

He cautioned that if the current trend persists, Filipinos can anticipate a decline in fisheries as coral reefs progressively deteriorate.

A critical scientific inquiry at this point, he stated, is how Philippine scientists can contribute not only to averting the catastrophic loss of corals and fisheries but also to ensuring food and income security, which are the most probable consequences.

He stressed the urgency of quantifying the impacts and consequences to address the situation effectively.

“Sana may chance pa silang mabuhay without human and scientific interventions. Kung wala, we need to do something more. Otherwise, magugutom ang mga Pilipino, mawawalan ng income,” he lamented.

(Hopefully, there is still a chance for them to survive without human and scientific interventions. If not, we need to take further action. Otherwise, Filipinos will go hungry and lose their income.)

Sabina Shoal (also known as Escoda Shoal), which is known for its rich marine biodiversity, including coral reefs and diverse marine life, is situated approximately 140 nautical miles west of Puerto Princesa City in Palawan.

There’s speculation that China seeks to reclaim the shoal, potentially to restrict the Philippines’ access to the oil-rich region. Patrol operations and resupply missions from the Philippines often commence in Palawan and traverse through Sabina Shoal.

Should the area become off-limits, it could hinder not only the Philippines’ access but also that of civilians and fishermen who rely on it for their livelihoods.