By Ellalyn De Vera-Ruiz
In the face of climate change, the reefs of Verde Island, situated in the middle of the “center of the center of marine biodiversity” in the world, are showing signs that they are protected from the major impacts of climate change.
According to Bart Shepherd, senior director of Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) in San Francisco, large-scale coral bleaching events that occurred in other places, like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, have not been observed in the reefs of Verde Island Passage.
“I do believe that the same characteristics that make it the center of the center of marine biodiversity also make it somewhat resilient to the impacts of climate change,” Shepherd said.
The Verde Island Passage is a 1.14 million hectare stretch of water along portions of the provinces of Batangas, Oriental Mindoro, Occidental Mindoro, Marinduque and Romblon in Southern Luzon, Philippines.
It is located right in the middle of the Coral Triangle, a region with the highest concentration of marine species in any region of the world, surrounded by six nations, namely the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and Solomon Islands.
Shepherd, co-leader of the Academy’s Hope for Reefs Initiative, and his colleagues at the California Academy of Sciences and international partners, conduct research and restoration of critical coral reef systems, like the Verde Island.
He observed that the Verde Island Passage region benefits from a couple of major factors, such as “proximity to deep water, upwelling, strong currents, and lots of nutrient-rich food that help buffer the corals against the hot, stagnant water that often comes with major bleaching events.”
Not just coral reefs, Shepherd pointed out that the region is a “complex of many different ecosystems,” where there are “seagrass beds, muck habitats, sandy areas, reef walls, rubble zones, among others, all in close proximity to each other.”
These “micro-habitats,” he said, also serve as buffer against the impacts of climate change “by providing homes and resources for many species.”
Coral Triangle centerpiece
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.
Shepherd is part of the Academy’s deep diving team, a group of scientific divers that focuses on depths between 60 and 150 meters, in a region popularly known as the “twilight zone.”
In 2015, the group discovered more than 100 new marine species in Verde Island.
Shepherd expressed that while Verde Island seems resilient from the effects of climate change, it is “critical that we take steps to restore and sustain coral reefs now.”
The role of the oceans in adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change was one of the issues given focus during the Global Climate Action Summit held in San Francisco last September.
Experts have observed that ocean warming, sea level rise, changes to the frequency and intensity of tropical storms, and altered ocean circulation patterns have affected the function of coral reef ecosystems globally.
About 90 percent of heat goes into the oceans, former United States Vice President Al Gore pointed out during the Summit.
He likened the degree of ocean warming to “400,000 Hiroshima A-bombs going off every single day.” “That’s why the temperatures are going up every year. Thousands of high-temperature records have been broken this year.”
Ocean warming is one of the main drivers of coral bleaching and death, ocean acidification and eutrophication, among others, which impacts all marine species–described or undescribed, Shepherd said.
PH reef life-like display
The Philippine Coral Reef exhibit serves as a permanent display at the CAS museum in San Francisco. It features about 120 species of fishes and a similar number of species of corals and other invertebrates.
“This is a fraction of the diversity on ‘real’ Philippine coral reefs, because we do have to remove the predators and coral-feeding fishes in order to ensure health and long-term vitality in the system,” Shepherd said.
“The Academy’s mission is to explore, explain, and sustain life—and within Steinhart Aquarium, we are working to raise awareness of climate change in several ways,” he added.
During this program, Shepherd explained that a scuba diver and a trained educator engage guests in a conversation about the impacts of climate change and other destructive factors, and share steps how the people can help sustain these precious ecosystems into the future.