National Scientist Challenges Youth at Ocean Conservation Camp

National Scientist Challenges Youth at Ocean Conservation Camp

The Philippines is the third largest country in the world with the widest coral reef area. It has about 25,000 square kilometers of coral reefs, next to Indonesia which has 80, 000 sq. km., and the Great Barrier Reef near Australia which has almost 350,000 sq. km.

But of this total area, National Scientist and Silliman University Professor Emeritus Dr. Angel C. Alcala, said that only 4 to 5% of Philippine coral reefs have been protected; the rest are facing various stages of degradation from overfishing, destructive fishing methods, pollution, and unsustainable tourism practices.

Dr. Alcala pioneered in research on and establishment of marine reserves or “no take zones,” having started his work at the Silliman University Marine Laboratory in the early 1970s.

A marine reserve seeks to protect at least 20% of a coral reef area from all kinds of fishing and extraction to allow fish and other organisms to feed, breed and grow undisturbed. In time they mature and migrate to the nearby unprotected areas, where people can harvest them, and produce larvae to sustain fishing areas.

By creating a network of marine reserves, the areas of protection expand and the volume of production increase. Dr. Alcala has consistently highlighted how good reserves can increase fish yields by more than tenfold.

At a youth camp dedicated to environmental protection, he urged young leaders to continue the work in conserving and expanding the protection of the rich marine biodiversity in the country.

“The results of our work have been known in various countries in the world and contributed to the Philippine status as a country with mega-biodiversity. It’s your time to mobilize the people to follow our example and continue our work,” said Dr. Alcala as the keynote speaker during the Visayas SEA (Sea and Earth Advocates) Camp in Lake Balanan, Siaton, Negros Oriental last April 28.

The was camp is organized by Anna Oposa of the Save Philippine Seas movement and supported by U.S. Embassy Manila.

Early encounter with nature

During his talk, Dr. Alcala said his experience as a child in Cauayan, Negros Occidental, inspired him to help the environment.

“When you are confronted by this pristine environment you cannot help but respect it, vow to study all forms of life in the environment and make important actions to allow them to survive and continue to give beauty to the people,” he explained.

Dr. Alcala went on to study BS Biology at Silliman University and graduated magna cum laude. But, as he keeps telling junior faculty at Silliman, undergraduate study is not enough.

He proceeded to Stanford University in the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship, and by 1966 got his Ph.D. in the biological sciences. Immediately he returned to Silliman to continue his research, teaching and administrative work. He set up the Silliman University Marine Laboratory in 1974. Eventually, he was appointed University President in 1991 but served for a short period following his appointment by then Philippine Fidel V. President Ramos into his Cabinet as Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. After his government appointments (1992-1999), Dr. Alcala returned to Silliman to resume his scientific work, for which he earned numerous recognitions, including as National Scientist of the Philippines last year.

At the SEACamp, Dr. Alcala told the youngsters: “Universities are important. And in order to acquire knowledge, you must not stop from learning and studying. Open your minds to other people, other places, and learn from them.”

He added that in order to have a proper conservation, one must have “proper information.”

“In order to maintain good work, you must study. Your study will tell you which of your results will be made available to the people,” he said.

Coral reefs are rain forests in the sea

Dr. Alcala stressed that if people continue to destroy coral reefs and don’t practice conservation, people will suffer in the end.

“Coral reefs are the equivalent of rainforests. And if we continue to overfish, destroy coral reefs, time will come when the fishery component on which we depend will decrease and fishermen can no longer get any more fish.”

Almost 60% of the Philippine population depends on the coastal areas, Dr, Alcala said.

However, with the growing population and the growing consumption, implementing “no take zones” in some coastal areas to conserve marine resources is difficult.

In order to reach out to people and make them understand the importance of conservation, he said biologists and other natural scientists should collaborate with social scientists.

“They are important in changing public opinion, people’s attitude and behavior.You can’t do the work alone. You must collaborate, as I have done with Philippine and Australian colleagues,” Dr. Alcala shared.

Youth challenge

At the end of SEA Camp participants will present a project proposal intended to uphold coastal conservation to a panel of judges, and the winners will receive funding for their project.

Dr. Alcala challenged the participants: “And to you, young generation, mobilize the people to follow our example and continue the work. There are more coral reefs to be protected. We should protect our marine resources to the tune of 20 to 30% converted to no take zones.”

He also said, “Protection should not be limited to coastal areas but should include the offshore and the deep portions of our coastal waters… Our lives are really connected to nature. The land is connected to the sea and sea is connected to the land.” (By Nova Veraley V. Grafe and Ms Celia E. Acedo, SU Research and Environmental News Service)