JULY 3, 2007
 (STAR) By Katherine Adraneda - The campaign to stop an infestation of coral-eating starfish, jointly conducted by the government with an international environment group, has yielded thousands of crown of thorns starfish (COTS) within the vicinity of the largest coral reef in the country and the second largest in the world, the Apo Reef in Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro.

Ending a nationwide summer drive, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) reported that a total of 5,212 COTS had been removed from Apo Reef alone.

The WWF reported that the initial COTS cleanup, done in January by volunteer divers from the group and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), netted 704 of the so-called “spiny predators.”

This effort was followed in February where the divers collected 387 COTS.

To enhance the initiative, the group tapped the fishermen who were allowed to fish within protected areas through use of sustainable methods. The fishermen collected 1,332 COTS.

At the same time, local hunters of octopus and divers from Club Paradise Resort from Busuanga, Northern Palawan were also asked to assist in the cleanup drive, and collected 1,300 COTS and 420 COTS, respectively.

The last cleanup was held last month where 1,059 COTS were collected.

The WWF said COTS populations, which are found throughout the Indo-Pacific region, mushroom each summer. Adults “are simply ravenous, eating large amounts of important coral species, usually from the genus Acropora (the branched corals most commonly associated with reefs).”

The WWF also said massive swathes of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed since global COTS populations started booming in the 1970s as COTS outbreaks can reach plague proportions that tens of thousands of individuals can suddenly appear within a few weeks’ time.

The group said an adult COTS can consume six square meters of reef annually.

Though destroying large numbers of starfish may initially sound inhumane, WWF stressed there is a need to reset nature’s balance.

“In cases where you have relatively young or recovering reefs, we choose to control COTS populations because most Philippine reefs are generally not in very good shape. They need the opportunity to recover. Plus, close to 50 percent of Filipinos living along our coastlines depends on seafood and many reef species as their sources of food,” said WWF president Lorenzo Tan.

Thus, “physical removal of the COTS is the only practical way to spare our reefs damage,” the WWF added.

It explained that the starfish’s sheer bulk and dense coat of stinging spines that measure up to 5 centimeters long proved to be an effective deterrent against most predators. It noted that natural predation falls mostly to the Napoleon wrasse, Harlequin shrimp, and Giant triton.

However, global fish stocks have been over-harvested since the 1950s, hence, the lack of COTS predators.

“(But) make no mistake; COTS play an important ecological role. They help keep fast-growing coral species in check, preventing them from dominating slow-growing but equally important coral species,” pointed out WWF Asia Pacific Energy Policy Coordinator Raf Senga, who also participated in the cleanup.

“However, a host of reasons have upset nature’s balance – not the least of which is increasing global temperatures brought about by climate change,” he said.

According to Senga, higher water temperatures cause algal blooms that provide excess food for corals, the primary predator of young larval starfish.

“Consider the fact that one COT can lay up to 60 million eggs. If just one percent survives, then figures will tell us that 600,000 can be generated from a single parent. Alter just a few factors and their survival rate increases – a difference of just one degree centigrade might have colossal consequences for all Philippines’ reefs. This in addition to coral bleaching caused by abnormally warm sea temperatures that have been observed during El Niño events,” Senga warned.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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