No Salve for Burnt Corals Burn? Do you hear the corals burn?
Hannah Jhanylle C. Po
Hush! Why speak when few people listen?
It is a treacherous thought, one spoken in between phone clicks and hellos. Though Jessie’s replies held fire, a small part of him wished that he had focused more on celebrity break-ups and Netflix releases. Maybe then, his heart would not break for the corals in Taiwan, the Great Barrier Reef, Batangas, and other areas, white and brittle from constant heat waves.
But his eyes snapped to a remnant of yesteryear, to the red, yellow, and purple branches stark against the turquoise backdrop and the amateur Crayola sketches that could not quite capture its brilliance.
“Do you hear the corals burn,” he replied.
In Classrooms for Future Batch One, a weekly environmental leadership webinar series held from June 26 to July 30, 2020, I had been grouped with Jessie John Legaspi, 22, to devise a sustainable project for urban mobility. I was immediately captivated by his enthusiasm towards achieving his advocacy, child empowerment for environmental protection. It endeavors for a world where all people, especially children, could voice their opinions on important societal issues, protect and promote their rights, and have their views genuinely considered when decisions are being made regarding their lives and future.
“As a kid, I remember loving travels, especially to beaches like San Joaquin. I would imagine that, for a bit, I was a fish swimming amongst the big, beautiful corals and other sea creatures. Though I have never been to Taiwan, I believe the feeling is similar,” Jessie shared, in an interview with the Augustinian.
At first glance, Taiwan’s reefs are nothing exceptional, cumulatively a mere 0.1 percent of the world’s vast collection scale-wise, according to a 2020 article by Chang. Yet spread across the Kenting, Green Island, and Orchid Island coral reefs, beneath the small crevasses and crystal waters, are kingdoms teeming with life – diverse ecosystems of corals, fish, crabs, sponges, seahorses, snakes, and turtles, among other sea-dwellers.
Corals, in particular, are crucial pieces of the marine puzzle despite being sedentary creatures. Sometimes assumed to be flora, they are, in fact, animals built from thousands of minuscule, soft-bodied polyps anchored to rocks and calcareous remains of other polyps, where fish and other creatures hide, eat, and breed.
Though coral polyps are often transparent, the zooxanthellae (genus Symbiodinium) that live in their tissues dye them in cacophonous colors. More notably, corals and microscopic algae have a mutualistic relationship. In exchange for energy and raw materials needed for bodily processes, corals supply a haven and waste products algae use during photosynthesis.
“It is fascinating how something as small as a coral could form coral reefs capable of hosting an important ecosystem for life underwater, protecting coastal areas by reducing the power of waves hitting the coast, and providing crucial sources of income for millions of people,” Jessie added.
Moreover, coral reefs serve as gateways to treatments for arthritis, human bacterial infections, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, viruses, and even cancer. One example is an ongoing study on 38 “lead isolates” among 3,000 bacteria isolates extracted from the Iloilo province ocean floor by the University of San Agustin – Center for Chemical Biology and Biotechnology, headed by Dr. Doralyn Dalisay. These bacteria could potentially fare well against multi-drug resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
The research team also made 18 expeditions in 2017 and 2018 in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, including the Tubbataha Reef, finding microbes that sourced antibiotics.
“Banking on the legacy of erythromycin, our (C2B2) lab in the University of San Agustin is looking at new antibiotics from actinobacteria, dwelling in the marine sediments. So, this is a different species, a different organism. That means there could be new antibiotics,” Dalisay stated during her presentation at the National Research and Development Conference 2019, an event organized by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).
TALES OF A SCORCHED EARTH
The thing about these relationships, though, is that it only takes some heat
to become toxic.
Based on a January 2021 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report, the global land and ocean surface temperature averaged at “0.80 degrees Celsius above the 20th-century average of 12.0 degrees Celsius,” the seventh highest in 142 years. Such can be attributed to global warming, a natural and beneficial process meant to maintain enough solar energy to sustain life. That is until it got injected by unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide that trap too much heat in the atmosphere.
As a species quite sensitive to these fluctuations, it is unsurprising why corals all over the planet are quite literally raising a white flag, coral bleaching.
In a January 12, 2021 press conference, the Taiwan Coral Bleaching Observation Network (TCBON) announced that based on a survey of 62 locations around Taiwan, approximately 31 percent of the coral reef population had been decimated. Xiao Liuqiu (小琉球), the country’s largest coral island, reportedly lost about 55 percent of its coral population.
Kuo Chao-yang, a postdoctoral scholar at the Biodiversity Research Center at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s leading research institute, attributed this to heat stress caused by a lack of summer typhoons in Taiwan the past year, which normally cool down coral reefs.
Optimal sea temperatures for coral growth sit at 23 to 28 degrees Celsius, lower than the 31 degrees experienced by Taiwan last summer. At higher temperatures, zooxanthellae start vacating, leaving pale and less nutrient-rich corals. Ocean acidification, another effect of excess carbon dioxide, messes with the calcium carbonate absorption of corals. This weakens the coral’s skeleton, causing its version of hypocalcemia.
Similarly, albeit on smaller scales, coral bleaching also occurred in Calatagan, Batangas, northern Palawan, Mindoro and Negros Occidental, and Panay last June 2020, as shared by members of the Philippine Coral Bleaching Watch, an online citizen reporting Facebook page. The damage in Catalagan encompassed the 72-kilometer shoreline of the peninsula, or from Barangay Gulod to Barangay Tanagan.
“A coral reef without corals is just like a forest without trees and the reef-associated creatures will have to leave because there is no shelter or food,” Kuo remarked, in an interview with Inquirer World.
SOOTHING THE BURNS
But say you care for marine life only if it is only a plate, tapestry, or covered in resin. What about the coastal communities that rely on corals to bar them from the worst of tides or for certain cultural traditions, the fisherfolks that need fish to feed their starving families, the medicinal compounds one could get from it, or the future generations that may never see the beauty of a coral reef ecosystem?
Will you sacrifice all of it for the sake of temporary pleasure?
What we see today is the carnage of upwards of centuries worth of coral reefs building up a centimeter a year. Healing it would take a similar amount of time, but it is possible through discipline and shared effort.
Walking, biking, minimizing trash, voting, sharing essential facts on social media, reporting eco law violators, using green and sustainable energy, donating to or participating in advocacy groups and research, growing new corals in underwater nurseries, lobbying for environmental justice - whatever action you make has an impact.
Beyond the individual level, governments must also set more carbon reduction goals and strengthen the implementation of environmental policies.
“We can have the best environmental policies, but it wouldn’t matter if no one implements or follows them,” Jessie asserted. “If we still hope to see and experience corals in the future, we must think of ways to help rebuild our oceans instead of being greedy or just complaining. We must act now.”
The bottom line is, choose to care.
Now, hush and listen. Don’t you hear the corals burn?
Published: April 25, 2022