Verde Island Passage: Marine Eden of the Pacific
by Katja Baladad
Blue. Whichever way I turn, all I could see was the cosmos of undulating shades of blue.
It is an alien world down here. I am floating above a mountainous range, but it is not made of familiar brown dirt. In its place, I see rolling ridges of corals and reefs. Some corals are spiny, others are porous. Some fan out to catch refracted sunlight, while others softly sway to the underwater wind. There are other formations unknown to me, each painted a color I never knew existed. I am in a different world.
No haggard college students rushing to class, no jeepney barkers shouting out “Philcoa! MRT!” hoping to catch jostling commuters, no naked children running around grimy alleys playing chase. Here, there is none of the noise or panic I have come to know as signs of life. Here, in the open waters of Verde Island Passage, life is the kind we find only in dreams: calm but colourful, humble but majestic.
The Verde Island Passage Marine Corridor (VIP) is famously known as “the center of the center of marine biodiversity” (Carpenter and Springer, 2005). It is the proverbial heart of the Coral Triangle, the apex of aquatic life on Earth. The Passage’s 900,000 square-kilometer area is home to 60% of the world’s known shorefish species, and even as much has yet to be explored in its waters.
Marine life here has the highest levels of endemism and biodiversity anywhere. Scientists counted 1,736 species in a mere 10-by-10 kilometer area. This includes more than 300 coral species and 32 mangrove species in Batangas alone, 20 seagrass species in Balayan Bay and Mindoro Oriental, 162 fish species, rare enclaves of clams, endangered sea turtles, and more. You don’t need to be a mathematician to be astounded of the plentitude of creatures that live in the VIP.
Just this June 2015, scientists from the California Academy of Sciences found more than 100 rare and new species in the Passage. A sea urchin species long thought to have disappeared over the past 230 years was also recently ‘rediscovered’ in the VIP.
This level of marine concentration has earned the Philippines–geographically small as we are–the title of “one of two megadiverse countries and biodiversity hotspots in the world,”
This level of marine concentration has earned the Philippines–geographically small as we are–the title of “one of two megadiverse countries and biodiversity hotspots in the world,” the other being Madagascar. If this was the next setting of ‘Finding Nemo,’ we’d have room for many more sequels.
With this level of abundance, the species in the VIP are not all just for food or show. Seaweeds are often used in the comsmeceutics, vitamins, and other nutritional supplements. Soft corals, called gorgonians, have anti-inflammatory properties, and are used in anti-wrinkle creams. Bamboo corals are also used for bone grafting, while other coral skeletons are used in orthopedic and cosmetic surgical implants.
Various marine species in the Passage have also been found to have anti-cancer agents, such as sea squirts , sponges, and purple sea urchins. Some sea urchins even hold potential for curing Alzheimer’s disease. Most popular in scientific journals is the cone snail venom that produces a specific neurotoxin–a pain reliever more potent than morphine.
Horseshoe crabs, known to populate only in parts of Asia, are useful in testing for bacterial contamination, and in treating mental exhaustion and gastroenteritis. Fish oils, especially cod (locally known as “bacalao”) liver oil, are popularly used for treating rickets and supplying vitamins A & D.
Like all other living things, marine organisms need food and shelter in order to survive. Mangroves and seagrass beds are the suburban communities of underwater wildlife and are also important parts of the entire ocean ecosystem.
Besides providing natural antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, seagrass beds are the primary producers and ecosystem engineers of the marine world. They host commercially and recreationally valuable aquatic species. In simple terms, seagrass beds supply us with the fish we eat, sell, and adore as pets and sights.
Mangroves are habitats to countless marine species, and are useful to humans in preventing coastal erosion and providing protection from storm surges and high winds.Mangroves in abundance played critical roles during the storm surges of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). Clearly, their survival is ours.
The Passage is surrounded by five provinces of the Southern Tagalog region—Batangas, Mindoro Oriental, Mindoro Occidental, Marinduque and Romblon–and is home to almost 8,000,000 residents, about 200,000 of which are indigenous peoples.
The provinces contiguous to the VIP are likewise rich in cultural diversity and economic potential. The Passage is surrounded by five provinces of the Southern Tagalog region—Batangas, Mindoro Oriental, Mindoro Occidental, Marinduque and Romblon–and is home to almost 8,000,000 residents, about 200,000 of which are indigenous peoples.
Aside from being watersheds of their own, these provinces rest on mineral-rich soils, refining the soil for flora and fauna. It is of no surprise, then, that each of the provinces’ main livelihood is agriculture and fisheries. With rolling mountains, vast fertile plains and abundant waters available at arm’s length, the Verde Island Passage is a rich ecosystem of its own: each organism dependent on the other, marine and terrestrial.
Marine life in the VIP is so prolific that it has enough to entertain both fishing and tourism
Roughly 1.925,000 people are dependent on agriculture, forestry and fishing in the VIP’s littoral provinces, not including the eco-tourism industry. Marine life in the VIP is so prolific that it has enough to entertain both fishing and tourism. What isn’t eaten and fished is left for viewing pleasure.
The VIP is home to the tourist-favorite Puerto Galera, one of the most beautiful bays in the world that was declared in 1973 as a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve, famous for deepsea diving and underwater cave spelunking. Pulong Bato, a 1.17-hectare fish-rich reef formation, is also one of so many protected marine sanctuaries (among many others in the Passage), considered as among the world’s best dive spots.
The Passage’s strategic location makes it an important sea route for the second-largest and most modern international port in Batangas, supplying shipping routes throughout Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao and other countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.
When my family and I paid a visit to this marine utopia, we were in it for a vacation. We watched the sunset in wooden huts veiled by trees. We wanted to breathe fresh air and listen to the rush of water. We escaped from the hustle and bustle of Manila to swim in calm waters with rainbow corals and sparkling fish. We went spelunking in underwater caves, and held live sea urchins on our palms. And before we even left Puerto Galera, we were already yearning to go back.
But with the enormous threats the VIP is currently facing, I just hope that there’s something left of it when we do. (To be continued)#
Katja Baladad is a Communications Research Major from the University of the Philippines – Diliman, and is currently a volunteer researcher of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment.