MANILA, November 14, 2005
 (STAR) By Katherine Adraneda - Foreign tourists wishing to see the country’s undersea wonders will be taught how to protect coral reefs, and as in any other course, they will get a certificate.

Launched over the weekend in Anilao, Batangas — one of the country’s most popular scuba diving sites — the Eco-Diver certification program has an initial fund of $50,000, with monetary support continuously open to concerned sectors.

"Reef Check," the largest coral reef conservation group in the world, had launched the program to generate funding and sustain efforts to save the country’s coral reefs.

The Eco-Diver certification program teaches recreational snorkelers and divers how to monitor the health of coral reefs.

It has beginner levels suitable for children and more advanced training for experienced divers.

The kit for the certification program would include materials that will be used for a coral reef survey like a special underwater slate, where an observer could record his or her remark even underwater.

Dr. Gregor Hodgson, Reef Check founder, said the Philippines, which has 27,000 square kilometers of coral reef, is at the global center of biodiversity and home to a large portion of the world’s reefs.

"Reef Check has developed an Eco-Diver training program that will be sold to foreign tourists," he said. "They will enjoy learning about coral reefs while creating financing for local reef monitoring and conservation."

Hodgson said Reef Check Foundation plans to tap broader scope in the protection and conservation of the country’s coral reefs by luring tourists looking for underwater adventure.

"The tourism program would be like a ‘Robin Hood operation’ where we would get the funding from the tourists in order to sustain efforts for the reef conservation and protection," he said.

Hodgson said the innovative certificate course will be offered to foreign tourists beginning January 2006 as its contribution to the revitalization and promotion of tourism in the country.

"We only need a little bayanihan to recover them," he said. "We have to give alternative or financial incentives to fishermen in order to make them shift to care for the coral reefs."

Hodgson said Reef Check will initially train 15 divers to help implement the program in top tourist-rich diving spots in the country like El Nido/Coron area, Subic, Bohol, Cebu, Batangas, Dumaguete, and Apo Island.

"Based from experience, fishermen were the first ones to strongly oppose efforts to protect the reefs because it would make them stop their fishing, but when they are given alternative livelihood and see the results, they become our foremost supporters," he said.

Hodgson said 95 percent of coral reefs in the Philippines are badly damaged due to over fishing brought by the increasing population, dynamite or cyanide fishing, eutrophication, sedimentation or turbidity from poor land use, and other human activities.

"Unfortunately, Philippine reefs are not as healthy as they once were," he said.

Hodgson said out of the 100 marine parks in the country, only five are considered as "working" - the Tubbataha, Apo, Hilotungan, Anilao and Apo Island reefs.

"It wasn’t until Nemo found his way to the big screen that the public started paying attention to coral reefs and (their) colorful flora and fauna," he said.

"With coral reefs being damaged faster than they can regenerate, it can’t be too soon to start saving Nemo."

Domingo Ochavillo, Reef Check-Philippines director, said they will soon also offer activity-adventure books for children, who would be taught about the importance of coral reefs and marine life. The book aims to instill in young minds the basic ecology of coral reefs, he added.

Ochavillo said in 2002, the Philippines was ranked 10th in the world as biodiversity hotspot, but it slid to fifth place last year.

"Reef Check-Philippines is working to save the country’s high level of coral reef biodiversity," he said.

"This is critical since the Philippines not only sits at the global center of coral reef biodiversity, as it is also a veritable hotspot with thousands of species of fish and invertebrates," Ochavillo said.

Middle school kids, from age 12 and up, will also be taught how to monitor the health of coral reefs through snorkeling, he added.

Coral Reefs are considered the largest living structures in the world and home to 25 percent of all fish species.

The total coral reef area worldwide is 284,300 square kilometers.

Coral reefs are over 100 million years old and called the "rainforests of the sea."

It protects coastlines and cities from storm waves. New antibiotics and antiviral drugs are based on chemicals extracted from reef organisms.

Today, however, an additional 30 percent of the world’s remaining reefs are severely threatened.

Damaged or unhealthy coral reefs are supposed to recover in two years.

The global warming in 1998 caused a 10 percent loss of the coral reef worldwide.

Reef Check has been encouraging local government units to set aside 20 to 30 percent of their areas as Marine Protected Area, where fishing would be strictly prohibited, and to allow communities to look after and manage their reefs.

Reef Check also comes up with reports on the condition of coral reefs worldwide to push governments around the world to support and fund moves to conserve and protect the coral reefs.

The abundance of marine life such as fishes and invertebrates serves as an indicator for good or healthy coral reefs, which are considered important to the future of the planet as people rely on them for food and survival.

The non-profit Reef Check Foundation was established in 1997 to reverse the coral reef crisis by using a business model to self-finance conservation.

It is present in 82 countries worldwide.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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