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Attaining environmental sustainability

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One of the Millennium Development Goals for 2010 is environmental sustainability. The country has failed to meet this goal for the marine environment. If our record in protecting our land environment is critically evaluated, I think that we have also failed the test.

We have failed to improve the conditions of our marine environment. First, we have protected and managed only three percent of the 25,000-km2 coral reef ecosystem since the 1970s, the year the community-based coastal resource management was started. Our recent assessment of the Visayas region no-take marine reserves in 2008 showed that only 30% of the 564 reserves are functional, down from about 40% in 2004-2005 based on a small sample of marine reserves in the Central Visayas. In the Visayas, about 70% of these reserves have not been protected well by the local communities and local government units.

Second, the catch per unit effort from single hook and line fishing gear in unprotected coastal areas has remained steady at about 400 to 500 grams per hour per fisher since 2003-2004, while that in the vicinity of marine reserves is about 1,000 to 1,500 grams per hour per fisher.

Third, the biomass of target (food) fish species in unprotected coastal areas during the 2000s is about 5 to 10 tons per km2 in contrast to about 100-150 tons per km2 inside no-take marine reserves that are fully protected.

I have not assessed the conditions of fish and fisheries in seagrass beds and mangroves, but they are likely to have remained essentially the same, if not in worse conditions, for the past five years based on the perceptions of fishers and marine biology researchers.

What can we do to improve the situation of our coastal environments and resources? I say that the most urgent thing for us to do is to increase the area of no-take marine reserves from what it is now by more than 2% every year until we reach the optimum protected area covering 20-30% of the total areas of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves during the next decade. This percentage of fully protected area (from fishing and other extractive activities) is needed to enable our marine biodiversity and habitats to recover their status at the turn of the 20th century. At this time, some of our reefs destroyed prior to 1972 have not recovered, indicating the extremely slow rate of reef recovery from such destructive activities like dynamite blasting.

Let us learn lessons from the Australians who have fully protected from fishing and other extractive exploitation 30% of the 350,000-km2 Great Barrier Reef, and are now enjoying the spillover of fish from the no-take marine reserves.

We have no other option. If we lose our own reefs, we cannot expect the Great Barrier Reef to replenish what we have lost. It is too far us. Preserving 30% of our reefs, and for that matter, our total biodiversity, is the only viable solution to our problem of resource degradation.

As I write this column, I am aware of the opinion of some (e.g. those in a recent publication of the World Bank) expressing doubts on the positive effects of up-scaling the effort to establish no-take marine reserves. On the contrary, I have no doubt that, based on experience and the hundreds of published papers demonstrating the effectiveness of well managed no-take marine reserves, no-take marine reserve establishment is the most significant, single solution to the problem of coral reef degradation in developing countries.

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