, MARCH 8, 2007 (STAR) Verde Island Passage has been described as the "center of the center" of the world’s marine biodiversity in a joint study by America’s Smithsonian Institute.

Beneath the turquoise waves that funnel nutrients from the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea are spectacular reef formations of more than 300 species of coral and underwater rock canyons that host nearly 60 percent of the world’s known shorefish species.

"This area can be considered the marine counterpart to the Amazon River basin," said Kent Carpenter of the World Conservation Union, co-author of the study which put the passage at the peak of the "Coral Triangle" that spans the Sulawesi and the Sulu Seas in the southern Philippines and nearby Indonesia.

Situated between the islands of Luzon and Mindoro, the Verde Island Passage is about 100 kilometers long and only about 20 kilometers across at its narrowest point.

In a recent interview Carpenter, who has spent the past 30 years studying marine environments in the Philippines, said the Verde Passage is also one of the most threatened marine areas in the world.

One of the busiest waterways in the Philippines, its waters are plied daily by oil and chemical carriers while on the shores of Batangas province there are shipyards, chemical and petrochemical plants and oil refineries.

"It’s part of the whole navigational superhighway," said Rodolfo Ferdinand Quicho, head of a private sector foundation called First Philippine Conservation Inc.

"From Verde Island you get a sweeping view of the industrialization that lines the southern shore of Batangas," Quicho told AFP.

Although there is no commercial fishing in the area, it is one of the world’s most spectacular areas for aquarium fish.

Last year First Philippine Conservation, which is playing the lead role in trying to preserve the Verde Island Passage, called on the government to guarantee its protection.

"No one was talking about conservation," Quicho said. "Now they are."

Added Carpenter: "A marine biodiversity epicenter represents a nation’s heritage and a global obligation to protect."

President Arroyo has formed a government task force to ensure the passage’s "protection, conservation and sustainable use" while Rep. Hermilando Mandanas, the legislator representing the area, has filed a bill before the House of Representatives to declare the Verde Island Passage protected.

But conservationists say the rhetoric needs to be backed up by concrete action.

"While oil and chemical carriers are allowed to sail through the passage there will always be the threat of pollution," said marine biologist Eric Parpan.

"The passage is not a major area for commercial fishing so illegal fishermen, those using dynamite, don’t go there," he said. Magnet for divers, source for aquariums For the 7,000 people of tiny Verde Island the area has become a magnet for divers from all over the world with three resorts built since 1999.

Manila businessman and Verde Passage habitué Antonio Ramon Ongsiako rates Pulong Bato, a 1.17-hectare fish-rich reef formation off Verde island and a protected marine sanctuary as among the world’s best dive spots.

"I can dive that same spot three or four times in a day and never get bored," he said. "The corals in both the garden side and the wall side are fantastic and the fish life is so prolific. The jacks (a fish species also known as pompano) just wrap themselves around you."

For many of the island’s inhabitants, aquarium fishing has replaced commercial fishing as a way of life.

Part of the work of First Philippine Conservation has been educating the island’s residents about conservation rather than exploitation.

It has helped find alternative jobs for displaced fishermen and educate aquarium fishermen on conservation values.

"I think it has made a difference. While I don’t have figures I think the mindset (in favor of conservation) is developing," Quicho said.

The marine Eden is so rich that fishermen scoop out foot-long eels and tiny shrimps at the water’s edge.

"These waters are like no other," said Jessie Legaspi, 41, from the Verde island coastal village of San Andres.

"Even if you fish everyday there is no sign of depletion," said the burly third-generation fisherman who traps tiny colorful reef fish for the international aquarium market.

Nowadays, he said, two-man teams dive using pressurized hoses attached to air compressors on their boat as improvised breathing apparatus.

They use tiny nets and metal rods to gather colorful reef fish like angelfish, African clown, rainbow wrasse, coral hagfish and green chromide.

The live catch is packed into airtight plastic bags filled half with seawater and half with pure industrial oxygen that is replenished daily.

They are taken by outrigger boats at least once a week to middlemen in Manila. From there they are flown to major aquarium markets across the world, including Japan and the United States.

Some species like the angelfish fetch P400 pesos each, but other more common species sell for as low as five pesos apiece.

Fishermen net about P10,000 pesos a week compared to the average monthly wage for rural workers of P13,000. — AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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