‘Blind Spot’

by Juan L. Mercado

“For the more adventurous, island hopping can be arranged… to the neighboring Hilantagaan Island” off Bantayan in northern Cebu, the travel blurb offered.

Hilantagaan and two neighboring islets—Ocoy and Sillon—offer far more. They’re the site of the first scientific effort to gauge the damage inflicted by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” on rehabilitation efforts’ “blind spot”—below the surface of the seas.

Fish and reefs clone what the UN Food and Agriculture Organization earlier called the other “overlooked crisis.” Storm-battered highlands were barely glimpsed by agencies funneling aid into accessible lowlands. And media focused on photo-opportunity capitals.

Post-Yolanda rehabilitation ranges from rebuilding schools to boosting mangrove programs to replanting, with fast-growing hybrids, the 15 million coconut trees flattened by Yolanda. These are visible. That’s not the case with resources below the sea’s surface. And seas make up 96 percent of the earth’s water.

Fish density losses from Yolanda bolted to almost 90 percent, marine biologist and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Angel Alcala told an Eduardo Aboitiz Development Studies Center forum. There was a 60-percent drop in biomass, the former Silliman University president added. This new report is anchored to a 2012 study conducted before the storm. Alcala and team returned for a below-the-sea surface assessment last February.

Coral reefs are nature’s fish nurseries. Yolanda’s “intensive wave action” inflicted extensive damage—“especially (on) branching corals and other fragile forms.” Even before Yolanda, only 4 percent of Philippine reefs were in “pristine condition,” thanks to dynamite fishing and other abuse. Haiti, Vanuatu, Tanzania, Fiji and Indonesia are in the same fix.

“Corals may be able to recover in five to 10 years, if left alone,” Alcala added in his co-presentation with Abner Bucol. “But if these areas are disturbed by fishing activities, they can’t.”

Even within marine sanctuaries, where fishing is banned, there was a 22- to 60-percent slump in fish biomass or total volume. A catch of four small fishes after three hours of fishing, using a gill net, in Hilantagaan islet is a stark example.

Reefs must be allowed to recover. That would require banning the current widespread use of three-ply nets which trap even juvenile fish. Catching parrot fish and surgeon fish should be a no-no. These feed on fleshy algae that help coral reefs.

Spillover of fish larvae was not determined, Alcala and team reported. “But it will practically be nil.” That would spiral into unsustainable levels, in the near future, for coral reef fish. There’s an implicit question in this pioneering analysis: Did Yolanda inflict similar damage as it tore through Quezon, Guimaras, Iloilo,

Negros Occidental, Eastern Samar and Leyte?

Protracted recovery of wrecked corals and reefs poses a devil-or-deep blue sea quandary for Yolanda survivors, Cebu Daily News reported. Many depend mainly on fishing for today’s meal.

The Alcala study led the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (Rafi) to freeze its plan to donate bancas in Bantayan. Rafi became leery after groups rushed banca donations in Eastern Visayas. That led to severe overfishing, executive director Evelyn Nacario reported. We’ll take a second look before plunging into an “intervention that’d cause more harm.”

Aid is needed in terms of nonmarine fish food for coastal fishermen. More basic is how to shift fisherfolk to alternative livelihoods. Most of the areas are municipal waters. So, the main responsibility mostly falls on local government units where the mindsets of many officials are mired in pork barrel casts.

Are fish losing their survival instincts, asks a James Cook University of Australia study. In Papua New Guinea, fish which normally shy away from the smell of predators are now attracted to it. “That’s incredible,” says professor Philip Munday. “They also swim further from shelter” as the world’s oceans become more acidic because of climate change.

“Fish appeared to have failed to adapt to high levels of carbon dioxide…. They didn’t seem to adjust,” says the study published last week in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released end of March its second report. The previous study said that the world’s surface temperatures were “flat-lining”; but it cautioned climate scientists to regard this as “a pause in an upward trend.” The second report asks: How do weather alterations disrupt ecosystems and livelihoods? “Profoundly, is the headline answer,” The Economist reports. Climate change is having an impact—from the equator to the poles. The subtler story is how to factor in adjustments to health systems, rural development and how to craft new policies.

Rising levels of warming seas could shove average sea level to go up 20 inches by the end of the century. That would affect people living in coastal cities. They would number 345 million by 2050, according to the report.

In the oceans, both animals and plants are now migrating from the tropics to temperate latitudes in search of cooler waters, adds the IPCC report. Laymen know benthic algae as seaweeds. They anchor marine food chains. Seaweeds are now shifting their ranges poleward at 10 kilometers a decade. Planktons are moving by 400 kilometers in the same span.

That will alter radically fish yields by 2055. In temperate latitudes they could be 30 to 70 percent higher than in 2005. Tropical yields could slump by 40 to 60 percent.

Meet the “new normal”: A world where relationships to seas and earth are still evolving into a world we now can only dimly glimpse.

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E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.com

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