30 May 2016

Off the beaten track with Kennedy Warne

From Nine To Noon, 11:47 am on 30 May 2016

Today Kennedy Warne is in the Philippines, where he has been roaming a few of the country's 7100 islands. He reports back on the coral bleaching he has seen, and what is being done to save the coral reef around the Philippines.

Read an edited excerpt from the interview below:

KENNEDY: When we last spoke you asked me about coral bleaching, but I hadn’t seen it then. I sure have seen it now. I was diving off the island of Palawan, the very western-most of the Philippines’ main islands. There the water temperature was 31 degrees and when the temperature does reach the low 30s, bleaching is inevitable and it is indeed like swimming through a coral graveyard. This particular episode of bleaching is caused by El Nino, but the expectation that El Ninos, instead of being a one in six- or seven-year event, will start to become an annual event as the seas steadily warm.

The great tragedy here is that the hundred million Filipinos, and of course that is just one of the countries that make up this area called the Coral Triangle, these people rely on fish and they largely rely on reef fish, so the demise of the reef is going to be a great human tragedy and a huge environmental tragedy, given the vast number of creatures that rely on coral reefs. While I’ve seen spectatular creatures, from tiny multi-coloured sea slugs to the whale sharks that I was diving with just a couple of days ago, the shadow that looms over these things is the loss of reef.

So I’ve seen the bleaching and then perhaps even worse than that, yesterday I was diving in an area that is kind of the Philippines’ Great Barrier Reef really - or that’s the way they bill it, not nearly as big as the Great Barrier Reef but still a very impressive expanse of reef and seeing the impact of dynamite fishing. As fish become harder to catch, people become cleverer at catching them and more desperate. What is still quite prevalent here, though banned for several years, maybe decades, it’s highly illegal. But desperate fishermen will still use this technique. They fill a bottle, maybe a beer bottle full of fertiliser and sticking a blasting cap in the top, they then whack this blasting cap with a rock, count to three, and then throw it in the water, like a hand grenade. The impact of this blast just destroys reefs and stuns fish. Of course they’re just after the fish, but when you dive on a reef that has been blasted, and I’m talking basically every square metre is demolished, there’s very little still left alive on these reefs and it’s a great tragedy, but it’s understandable because these people are desperate for food and poor and they will resort to these kind of measures.

KATHRYN: There are some excellent restoration projects under way, are there?

KENNEDY: Philippines had three very bad typhoons in a row, about 2012, 2013, 2014 and they also had a big impact in some areas, removing about 80% of the hard corals in some places. I was diving off a lovely little island called Siquijor and the locals have teamed up with NGOs – coral reef specialists to do some rehabilitation and how they do it is they set a little hut. Little stands, with angled slabs of concrete and they angle them at 45 degrees which turns out to be the best angle for coral to settle and then they spread plastic netting (the kind you might see around a construction site) and they spread that across the rubble of the coral and then they attach living fragments of coral with cable ties.

So I was down there, tying on pieces of coral to that coral mat and it’s wonderful to see. Little new corals growing, little fish hiding amongst them underneath the map and this is a way to kick start the restoration of a reef in marine sanctuaries where they know the coral will be protected and have a chance to grow and perform its important role of being a fish habitat and nursery.

The marine protected areas strategy is that you devote ‘No take’ areas so that beyond, the fishermen have a chance to catch whatever flows out of that sanctuary. You really notice, particularly in a place like the Philippines that the circulation systems are very complex and very considerable, so the export of fish larvae and mollusc and sea urchin larvae is… this is what can restore and replenish the lost reef. It’s a real gamble as to whether the sanctuaries are big enough to counteract the heavy over-exploitation elsewhere.