Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu has urged tourists who engage in scuba diving and snorkeling activities in ecotourism sites to observe “environmentally responsible behaviors” to avoid harming corals and other marine life.

“We call on those who visit underwater sites to dive carefully and avoid damaging the reef or disturbing underwater life by chasing, touching, poking or moving them,” Cimatu said.

Cimatu said it is highly important to protect and preserve the country’s marine environment, which is home to a vast array of endemic and threatened species.

The environment chief made the call as the government gears up for the much-awaited reopening of Boracay Island later this month and after photos of two vandalized corals in Batangas went viral on social media recently.

Boracay, which has been ordered closed for six months to pave the way for much-needed rehabilitation from environmental damage, will reopen on October 26 and is expected to serve as a model for sustainable ecotourism.

Cimatu, meanwhile, expressed disgust over the viral photos showing “Charlie” and “2018” inscribed on two separate corals found at the house reef of Bauan Divers Sanctuary (BDS) in Batangas.

“Corals are incredibly brittle and fragile, and they take a really long time to grow,” Cimatu pointed out.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States, some corals, such as massive corals, grow at just 0.3–2 cm per year.

Starting from larvae, it can take up to 10,000 years to form a coral reef, and 100,000 to 30,000,000 years to fully form larger coral reef structures like barrier reefs and atolls, it added.

Cimatu is hoping that no such similar incident occurred in nearby Verde Island Passage and the Apo Reefs, which are known sanctuaries of marine biological diversity.

He also said that dive operators guiding diving enthusiasts and tourists to the two marine sanctuaries in the area should “adopt sustainable ecotourism practices as early as now” so that it will “not suffer as much as Boracay has suffered.”

Particularly, the corridor of the Verde Island Passage and its embankments are characterized by high species biomass and abundance. Its western part, which is exposed to the West Philippine Sea, also has an area of highly diverse reefs where evolutionary distinct and globally endangered coral reefs can be found.

On the other hand, the Apo Reef is considered “the second largest connecting coral reef system in the world.” The site is also proclaimed as a protected area under the Natural Park category by the virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 868.

To lessen the adverse impacts of diving and snorkeling on the environment, the DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) has started mainstreaming the implementation of the “Green Fins Approach.”

“The Green Fins Approach is a set of standards for environmentally sustainable diving and snorkeling tourism activities. It also includes a robust system of assessment criteria to identify the high-risk practices both above and below water,” said BMB Director Crisanta Marlene Rodriguez.

In 2017, the BMB issued Technical Bulletin 2017-13 on the Guidelines on the Implementation of Environmental Standards for Diving and Snorkeling in line with the Coastal and Marine Ecosystems Management Program, a national program which aims to comprehensively manage, address and effectively reduce the divers and threats of degradation of the coastal and marine ecosystems. ###