|The following first appeared in the December 2016 issue of the magazine Enrich, published by Mercury Media Corp., and is reproduced with permission.|
Artificial Coral Reefs Spreading Through Philippines
By Simon Ward, Communications Director, Biri Initiative
With oceans covering more than 70% of our planet, marine conservationists inevitably look at the big picture and urge multinational cooperation. But “thinking globally, acting locally” plays a key role too, as in efforts to preserve and restore the troubled coral reefs of the Philippines.
Hopes are pinned on coral reefs made by man. They’re hardly a new concept; in ancient times, the Persians and Romans built them as defenses. But today they are all about helping natural reefs combat the ravages of rising ocean temperatures, destructive fishing methods, agricultural and industrial runoff, and untreated sewage, to name just the main culprits.
The most popular artificial reefs in the Philippines are Reefbuds, a technology developed a decade ago by the local Yes2Life Foundation with World Bank funding. Weighing 450 kg, Reefbuds are 75% concrete, but the key to their success – measured in terms of how fast they are colonised by corals – is the other 25%.
This is a specially formulated biomass that provides a nutrient-rich home for a host of marine life, including hard corals, the building blocks of reefs. The biomass also acts as a sponge, absorbing water together with microscopic life suspended in it, further promoting colonisation. A rough surface helps baby corals in the passing current gain a foothold, and large holes in the sides give access to a hollow center that shelters spawning fish.
Boracay: To the Rescue
Since 2007, Reefbuds have been deployed at dozens of sites around the country, with the biggest project to date being at the country’s top tourist destination. In 2012, 5,000 Reefbuds were deployed along a 2-kilometer stretch of Boracay Island’s famed White Beach.
This massive project followed the island’s announcement that over 90% of its coral reefs were dead, and that the beach, no longer protected by reefs against storms and currents, was literally disappearing!
But artificial reefs are not a magic pill. Boracay’s rapid development into a playground for 1.2 million tourists a year has placed enormous stress on its marine environment, particularly in terms of pollution. Reefbuds will only flourish if they are part of a holistic strategy that addresses why the coral reefs died in the first place.
Fishing Communities in Peril
Meanwhile, Biri Initiative, an NGO already experienced in deploying Reefbuds at Sabang Beach resort in Mindoro, has been addressing a different challenge on remote islands in Northern Samar.
Its springboard for introducing artificial reefs to Northern Samar has been Biri Island, from which it takes its name. Biri, and two neighbouring islands where it is also at work, is quite unlike the bustling resorts of Boracay and Sabang. Its people depend almost entirely on fishing, and there are no corporations or big hotels queuing up to fund reef restoration.
On the plus side, such communities do not have serious pollution problems. But on the down side, their reefs have suffered greatly from illegal fishing using dynamite and cyanide. And because of the importance of reefs in maintaining healthy coastal fisheries, many now face uncertain futures.
“Restoring reefs in resorts is rewarding because tourists understand what you’re doing and want to help,” says Biri Initiative president Richard Ewen. “But you’re simply going where the funding is. Now we want to introduce the benefits of reef restoration to people who can afford it the least, but need it the most.”
To meet this challenge, Biri Initiative made some adaptations to the Reefbud, giving birth to the “Biri Bud”.
Top priority was to minimise costs, and so Biri Buds emphasise local materials even more than Reefbuds. Cement must still be shipped in, but the volume is greatly reduced by adding dead coral rubble to the mix - about 25% by volume of each Bud. Coral rubble is available on almost any beach in the Philippines.
Biri Buds also use locally sourced biomass. Instead of shipping scientifically formulated biomass from Manila, Biri Initiative is experimenting with simple household waste, like coconut husks, banana peels, crab shells and mango stones. The only “processing” done is to chop it into small pieces.
“We were concerned that using table scraps would compromise the integrity of the concrete – that we’d get a lot of breakages,” says Ewen. “But we’ve produced hundreds of Biri Buds now, with no breakages at all!”
Also different, for practical reasons, is the size. At 450 kg, Reefbuds are stable even in the strongest ocean current, but they are also hard to deploy without heavy lifting tackle not commonly available in small fishing communities. Biri Buds, at a third of the size, can be lifted by two strong men with a bamboo pole.
Biomass Is Key
Both Reefbuds and Biri Buds have proven themselves extremely effective in promoting coral growth, and far superior to plain concrete. That’s right. If plain concrete is placed on the sea bed in a clean environment and in proximity to healthy coral colonies, those colonies will eventually engulf them.
But artificial reefs with biomass are not intended for such sites. Instead, they are intentionally placed where corals have been destroyed and need all the help they can get to regenerate.
Such is the case in Sabang, the busy Mindoro resort where Biri Initiative deployed its first Reefbuds in 2013. Sabang shouldn’t need any help at all; it faces the Verde Island Passage, one of the most biodiverse marine environments in the world. But pollution has reduced much of the littoral zone in front of the resort to mud, silt and patches of sea grass.
Biri Initiative carefully selected sites for the Reefbuds that were just far enough off shore that the passing current mitigated the pollution, and carried baby corals past the Reefbuds. Three years after those first Reefbuds were deployed, coral growth on most has been nothing short of spectacular.
“Water quality off Sabang is far from ideal, and there were doubts about whether Reefbuds could overcome that,” says David Parker, director of operations for Biri Initiative, who oversaw the first deployment. “But the overall performance has been very encouraging. Still, we are paying close attention to under-performing sites, and reminding resort operators that ultimately it is water quality that will determine if we succeed.”
And that hits the nail on the head. Artificial reefs with biomass really do work very well, even in adverse environments. But local stakeholders must also do their part – whether it’s reducing pollution, or stopping harmful fishing methods. If these mostly small-scale projects continue to spread, educating communities one at a time, perhaps they can help bring change on a global level.
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