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Michael Aquino

Philippines Diving Spots Endangered by Massive Coral Theft.

By June 7, 2011

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Colorful sea fans on Dumaguete Pier, Oriental Negros Island, Dumaguete, Philippines. Image © Getty Images.

Considering going diving in the Philippines? If the current situation goes on as before, you'll probably have to rethink your plans. The seas in the Philippines are currently being plundered wholesale, and the local government has been powerless to do anything as of late.

About 7,000 hectares of sea floor, an area "twice the size of Manila" was recently despoiled of its corals, as reported in the news last week:

Poachers decimated an entire "reef complex"--almost twice as big as Manila--off the coast of Cotabato province when they harvested more than 21,000 pieces of black coral and killed 161 endangered turtles and other marine life, officials said Tuesday.

Bureau of Customs officials intercepted the contraband two weeks ago and recovered 134 bundles, or 21,169 pieces, of "sea fan" black corals and 15 bundles, or 196 kilograms, of "sea whip" black corals.

"The Moro Gulf and the Sulu Sea off Cotabato are supposed to be unexplored reef areas but with this collection, we can see that they have also been disturbed," said Ludivina Labe, a senior marine biologist of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

"It's like a forest that has been cut down," Labe said. "One reef complex was decimated."

Despite the massive amounts of coral plundered, Philippine law ensures the thieves will get off with a virtual slap on the wrist. "The punishments for the crime do NOT match the severity of the crime," Filipino blogger Anna Oposa testified before the Philippine Senate this week. "Just 2 years in jail for the criminal, but at least 2 decades for the coral reefs to recover."

Where does this all go? What kind of demand is fed by this wholesale theft of the seas? The ornamental coral industry is huge, particularly Stateside: "Americans buy some 80 percent of the live coral taken from reefs (more than 400,000 pieces a year); more than 90 percent of all live rock in trade; and more than half of the marine aquarium fish sold worldwide." (source) If it doesn't end up in aquariums, corals and shells plundered from Philippines seas ends up in other ornamental uses, such as these "attractive" displays set up in, of all places, the White House.

It's not just aquarium envy doing the damage; overfishing can also damage corals too. Davao blogger (and freshly-minted diver) Blogie Robillo saw beauty and destruction in equal measure on his first honest-to-goodness dive - "There are also large swathes of dead coral to be seen. I was told that those are the remnants of a severe crown-of-thorns plague sometime ago. Local fishermen had all but wiped out giant triton shells in the area, you see. Triton are the crown-of-thorns starfish's natural predators, also a delicacy among locals."

Filipino bloggers are doing their best to raise consciousness about the plunder and its consequences: the site Save the Philippine Seas (savephilippineseas.com) has been set up as a collective effort by concerned Filipino netizens, raiding Facebook, Twitter (hashtag #savePHseas) and the blogosphere to keep people talking about the issue.

If you want to keep diving in the Philippines and other Southeast Asia diving sites, you should help them keep up the pressure. If you don't join in... your call, but how much longer have we got till the only place you'll see Southeast Asia corals will be in some dude's saltwater aquarium in Ohio?

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