August 5
, 2004  (STAR) STAR SCIENCE By Edgardo D. Gomez, Ph.D. - Few readers may realize that some pioneering research on Philippine coral reefs led the way from the backwaters of the Third World to the status of a First World institution. This article will briefly trace this development while serving to introduce a series of papers on marine science and technology in the Philippines written by scientists working at the UP Marine Science Institute. I will use as the main theme one of our great marine natural resources, the highest diversity coral reefs of the world. The articles that will follow in succeeding weeks will include topics such as seaweeds, red tides, coral bleaching and climate change, among others.

In today’s environmental jargon, one often hears of "hotspots" of biological diversity or "biodiversity" for short. For the layman, a hotspot is a geographical entity that has high or unique assemblages of species (like orchids, birds or fish), but which organisms are under serious threat for their very existence! The Philippines is now considered a hotspot for several groups, including trees, birds and corals. This article will be about the last group. I have chosen to focus on this, for several reasons, among which is the fact that the Philippines lies at the apex of a region of the world known as "The Coral Triangle," because of its roughly three-sided geographical spread, with the Philippines on the north, the Sunda islands of Indonesia to the southwest, and the Papua-New Guinea/northern Great Barrier Reef to the southeast. This geographical entity was not yet recognized as such three decades ago when the story I am about to tell had its uncertain beginning.

A new research center was approved for establishment by the University of the Philippines in 1974 with virtually no funds. Almost at its inception, the author conceptualized a research proposal to investigate the coral resources of the country, which project gradually highlighted our signal advantage of having the largest number of known species of corals in the world. This fact attracted a few foreign scientists to look into what we were doing and to slowly establish communications with our handful of young researchers. The contacts were easily established because the local scientists could communicate easily in English. More importantly, the small team that was newly formed was driven to achieve results and eager to seek help wherever they could. This openness and eagerness sent positive signals abroad that, indeed, there was some potential for doing collaborative science in a Third World country.

Let me step back a little and make mention of the fact that a then retired Filipino scientist, who had worked single-handedly, was already recognized for his pioneering studies on the taxonomy of corals. This was the late Prof. Francisco Nemenzo, the father of the incumbent president of the University of the Philippines. While he had made a name for himself, his influence was limited as he had not been able to establish a cadre of competent Filipinos to carry on and expand his work. (But I will come back to Prof. Nemenzo later in this article.)

The "new" angle to coral reef studies involved a team approach. Realizing that the national scope of the new investigation would be daunting for a single group to tackle, I enlisted the collaboration of former Secretary Angel Alcala, then the head of the Silliman University Marine Laboratory in Dumaguete City, to form the second team, while I set up a third team in Cebu City, involving UP Cebu and a graduate of the University of San Carlos. To telescope the results of this project, we arrived at a status report on the condition of Philippine coral reefs. The figures arrived at 25 years ago are now household knowledge, 5 percent excellent, 25 percent good, and the rest either in fair or poor condition. Besides sounding the alarm bell on the serious condition of our natural resources, this survey was a landmark effort. It was the first national inventory of the coral reefs of any country in the world. Today, there is a global effort generally under the name of "Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network" or GCRMN that regularly assesses or evaluates the condition of coral reefs in virtually all the countries that have these resources. It may also be worth noting that we were represented in the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee of the GCRMN from the start, taking on the chairmanship subsequently, and are now represented in the Management Committee.

Partly on account of this project, the Philippines was invited to host the 4th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in 1981, when there was just a nucleus of coral reef scientists in the country. The ICRS is the premier international scientific meeting on coral reefs. The small nucleus based at the former Marine Sciences Center (now the Marine Science Institute or the UPMSI), in spite of their inexperience, rose to the challenge in two ways: by presenting a credible number of scientific papers and organizing an international symposium for the first time in such a professional manner that many still remember that conference as one of the best organized, even after more than two decades. One highlight of the 1981 symposium was the conferment by the UP of an honorary doctoral degree, honoris causa, on the late Prof. Francisco Nemenzo in recognition of his outstanding work on the taxonomy of corals.

Recently, Andy Hooten, a consultant to the World Bank Environment Division, did a tally by country of the primary authors of the papers published in the proceedings of the last two ICRS meetings, the 8th in Panama in 1996 and the 9th in Bali, Indonesia in 2000. The Philippines was second to Brazil among all the developing countries in the 8th ICRS, being ninth among all countries, with 14 presentations, the same number as Canada. However, in the 9th ICRS, it rose to third overall, tied with the United Kingdom and the first among the developing countries. On the latter occasion, it followed the United States and Australia and tied with the UK with a total of 26 papers. The 10th ICRS was recently held in Okinawa, Japan with some three dozen Filipinos in attendance, the majority being staff, students and graduates of the UPMSI. It was heartening to hear unsolicited comments from foreign scientists, expressing their gratification in seeing so many young Filipino scientists deliver first-class papers on their research work.

Hence, it is not surprising that in the first truly global research program on coral reefs, the newly approved Global Environment Facility or GEF Targeted Research on Coral Reefs and Capacity Building for Management which has an initial budget of $22 million, Filipinos are represented in five of the six Working Groups and a Philippine resident American is a member of the sixth. We have the largest developing country representation in this worldwide program of high-level coral reef research which addresses issues on coral bleaching, connectivity, diseases, modeling, reef restoration, and remote sensing. Further, the UPMSI, with its Bolinao Marine Laboratory, has been designated one of four Centers of Excellence (CoEs) where the bulk of the research work will be undertaken. It may be noteworthy to mention that these centers are distributed in four seas of the world, with the Philippines representing the North Pacific. This choice will have widespread benefits as the major aims of the CoEs are capacity-building and the linkage to management in addition to the facilitation of the research investigations.

The details stated above bear witness to the fact that a small, active group of Filipino scientists working in a state-supported institution are held in high esteem and treated with genuine respect and admiration by their international peers. In the field of coral reef research, many supporters from the developed world are willing to go the extra mile to be supportive of our efforts. This is further evidence that it is possible to attain world-class status through professional endeavors and hard work, even if local funding is very limited. The only natural asset in abundance were the coral reefs which, unfortunately, are now much abused principally by both desperate and greedy fishers. It is hoped that the insults on these productive ecosystems be mitigated, lest the research of a First World institution in a developing country be for naught.

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Edgardo D. Gomez obtained his Ph.D. in Marine Biology from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of California-San Diego. He was founding director of the UP Marine Science Institute, Diliman, Quezon City for 25 years. He is a UP professor (Marine Biology), NAST academician and board member of several local and international organizations on coral reef management. He has been the recipient of numerous awards for his accomplishments as science administrator and for his pioneering work on the culture of giant clams, coral reef ecology and management.

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