The following commentary was published by Biri Initiative Org., Oct. 24, 2013, and is reproduced with permission.
Sabang Beach Reef Restoration Follows Boracay's Lead
Above the high tide line, the popular beach resorts of Boracay and Sabang Beach near Puerto Galera, Mindoro, have little in common. Once a secret hideaway for backpacking windsurfers, Boracay today specializes in air-conditioned luxury and cocktails with little umbrellas by the pool. Sabang fans have always partied a little harder.
But below the water, they share a commitment to restoring their precious coral reefs, or to be more accurate in Boracay’s case, bringing them back from the dead. And both have chosen to go with a new artificial reef technology developed in the Philippines, the Reefbud.
This month work began deploying the first batch of 30 Reefbuds off Sabang, courtesy of one of its busiest hangouts, Big Apple Dive Resort. Big Apple produced them in its own back yard using molds provided by the Yes2Life Foundation, the organization which conceived the Reefbud in 2006 then made it a reality with World Bank funding. Actual deployment at sea was overseen by the non-profit Biri Initiative Org.
Big Apple now wants to make Reefbuds to order for other Sabang resorts.
“There's a lot of interest among resort operators," says Biri Initiative’s Operations Director, David Parker. "Many of them first discovered Sabang on diving holidays, and diving is the number one draw for their guests, so they're very knowledgable about their marine environment. They know that investing in their reefs is investing in the future of the whole community.”
Artificial reefs have been around since ancient times, when the Persians and Romans built them as defenses against attack. But in modern times, they are all about helping natural reefs overcome the ravages of destructive forces, whether they be human activities or natural events such as coral bleaching.
They range from cheap and ineffective - even damaging - solutions like car tires, to the effective but costly Biorock, which builds reefs by electro-mineral accretion, typically involving a frame of rebar charged with a low-voltage direct current.
Between these extremes are the most common artificial reefs involving blocks or balls of concrete. These provide homes for a variety of marine life, including coral spawn that might otherwise be swept away by tides and currents. Soft corals can develop quite quickly on concrete reefs, though hard corals, such as brain corals, will take many years to grow, as they do in nature.
Now Reefbuds offer an alternative to all these technologies. Though similar to conventional concrete reefs and costing no more to produce, their special composition means that colonization by marine life proceeds at a much faster rate.
The Eureka! moment that led to their creation came while environmental geoscientist Dr. Harald Kremnitz was researching hollow blocks made from concrete and biomass waste. By chance, his blocks came in contact with seawater, triggering a calcification process much like the process that occurs naturally to create hard corals.
The potential for application to reef restoration was obvious and Kremnitz teamed up with Yes2Life to develop the Reefbud.
Priority was given to assuring all the materials required are available in proximity to the locations where the Reefbuds will be deployed.
Concrete makes up 75% by volume, but this is no ordinary concrete: it’s produced using seawater and beach sand.
The other 25% is biomass which can contain a range of ingredients common in regions where most coral reefs are found, such as coconut husks and shredded rice stalks. This biomass is the key to a Reefbud’s effectiveness. It provides a nutrient-rich home for algae, plankton, anemones, sponges, mollusks and small fish. It also turns the Reefbud into a sponge, absorbing seawater together with microscopic life suspended in it. This further promotes colonization and also increases the Reefbud’s weight, making it stable even in the strongest currents.
Its form, meanwhile, shares proven features with conventional concrete reefs: large holes around its sides and a hollow center, to provide shelter for fish spawn and fingerlings from currents and predators.
From Batangas to Boracay
Big Apple’s decision to go with Reefbuds for Sabang was based on the technology’s small but growing track record.
In 2007, Yes2Life launched a pilot project off Anilao, Batangas, quickly followed by a full-scale project off Rosario, Cavite. The seabed off Rosario at that time was considered “marine dead” - just mud and sand - and the local fishing industry was moribund.
Over the next five years, 1,165 Reefbuds were deployed off Rosario and the fishing industry was transformed. Before, local fishermen had travelled to Bataan and Batangas provinces to fish. Today the situation is reversed, with fishermen from other provinces coming to Rosario. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of boats registered to fish off Rosario grew from 1,200 to over 3,500.
Meanwhile, Boracay was taking notice.
In 2012, the country’s top tourist destination made the shameful admission that over 90% of its coral reefs were dead. This was hardly news to anyone who had dived there in recent years, but what galvanized stakeholders into belated action was something even more unthinkable. Now unprotected by reefs against storms and ocean currents, their famous White Beach was literally disappearing!
And so project Code Blue was launched, aptly named since “Code Blue” is a hospital emergency code for a patient requiring immediate medical attention.
White Beach is now home to 5,000 Reefbuds along a two-kilometer stretch, but whether they perform effectively depends on Boracay taking other measures as well. The tiny island’s rapid development into a playground for 1.2 million tourists a year has placed enormous stress on its marine environment. Reefbuds will only flourish if they are part of a holistic strategy that addresses why the coral reefs died in the first place.
“They’re not a magic pill,” says Biri Initiative founder and President Richard Ewen. “The onus is still on Boracay to care for its environment and Reefbuds can help.”
Sabang Beach is not like Boracay, he explains. “The resorts are smaller and development has been at a very gradual pace. Plus the coastal fringes of Sabang partner with the nearby marine reserve of Verde Island, perhaps the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world. With such richness of marine life all around, Reefbuds will be assisting only, helping maintain the balance of nature by enhancing existing coral habitat.”
Small Fishing Communities
Looking ahead, Ewen now wants to help the thousands of small fishing communities around the Philippines embrace sustainable fishing methods, rehabilitate their damaged reefs and, wherever possible, develop alternative livelihoods to fishing.
Driving him has been the experience of living on Biri Island, Northern Samar, since 2006, watching poor fishermen destroy their most valuable asset, the coral reefs, just to survive another day.
“Resorts like Boracay and Sabang Beach have the resources to address environmental concerns, including reef restoration,” he says. “But when a community’s entire economy is based on fishing and the reefs are being killed by dynamite and cyanide, the very future of the community is at risk. Through Reefbuds, Biri Initiative wants to bring artificial reef technology to the people who can afford it the least, but need it the most.”