By Ellalyn De Vera-Ruiz
More than 30 new species of sea slugs, sea urchins and soft corals have been discovered in the Verde Island Passage, between the provinces of Batangas and Mindoro, proving the area’s significance as “the center of the center” of marine biodiversity in the world.
The Filipino-American team of marine experts, led by zoologist Dr. Terry Gosliner of the California Academy of Sciences (CAS), recently returned from a marine expedition in the Verde Island Passage, which led to the discovery of 30 nudibranch species, two sea urchins, and several new species of soft corals.
The diving teams explored both deep and shallow ecosystems to document the species’ richness, evaluate ecosystem health, and gather data to support smarter ocean conservation strategies.
Verde Island Passage has been a long time regional focus of multiple expeditions by the Academy, as it is the most biologically diverse water in the world. CAS researchers have visited the region since 1992 and in that time have discovered over a thousand species that are new to science.
During their recent visit, Gosliner said the team continued to survey the waters of Anilao, Batangas and conducted explorations from Romblon Island in the far eastern part of the Verde Island Passage.
“These new discoveries continue to reinforce that the Verde Island Passage has unmatched marine biodiversity and undisputedly is the center of the center of marine biodiversity. It also confirms that different parts of the Verde Island Passage (VIP) have different species and each part of the VIP needs to be carefully managed to protect those unique species for coming generations,” Gosliner told the Manila Bulletin.
The team also learned that the Verde Island Passage “functions as a reservoir of biodiversity to replenish damaged reefs elsewhere in the Philippines and the Coral Triangle.”
Coral Triangle Region is a global hotspot of marine biodiversity surrounded by six nations, which include the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and Solomon Islands.
In addition to discovering new marine species, the deep-diving “twilight zone” team also documented “evidence of human impacts” at 200-500 feet below the ocean’s surface, indicating that mesophytic deep reefs are as heavily impacted as their shallow counterparts and in need of strong protections.
“There are many impacts of human activity that are evident everywhere we are exploring. Trash, plastics and other human debris are found everywhere from shallow water reefs. Some reefs exhibit damage from boat anchors being dropped on coral heads. We also see relatively few large fish outside of marine protected areas,” Gosliner said.
The Academy noted that nearly 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs are currently threatened by the combined impacts of overfishing, habitat destruction, water pollution, climate change, and ocean acidification.
With education of local communities about proper garbage disposal, it “will improve things considerably,” Gosliner pointed out. “This, combined with more effective solid waste management, is necessary to decrease pollution of reef communities.”
Gosliner also recommended placing moorings for popular dive sites to help reduce damage by dropping anchors. “This has been done very effectively in some places such as Mabini and Tingloy (in Batangas) and should be more widely adopted. It can be funded by collection of dive fees from tourists,” he said.
“The issue of overfishing can be addressed by creating more and larger marine protected areas and no-take zones. This can be done in a way that does not reduce livelihoods and adversely impacting artisanal fishing and the families of fisher folks,” he also said.
Gosliner said CAS, together with its numerous international partners, conduct research and restoration of critical coral reef systems through the Hope for Reefs initiative.
“It includes a program of exploration of reefs around the world, including the most poorly known parts of coral reefs in the twilight zone. It also involves education and coral reef restoration,” he explained.
“The Philippines represents the foundation of the Academy’s work on coral reefs, spanning more than 25 years of study. It is also where the greatest focus of research, education and conservation has taken place,” he pointed out.