Women power keeps coral predators away from protected Sarangani Bay

Volunteer scuba divers gather invasive crown of thorns starfish in the waters off Maasim, Sarangani. Photos courtesy of South Point Divers

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 28 January) – The crown of thorns (COTs) starfish that have been destroying corals in the marine resource-rich Sarangani Bay have found their match among women, and volunteer scuba divers, who plucked them out from the sea for good.

Thanks to the rice reward, housewives in coastal communities came out in force to prevent the invasive COTs from badly damaging the rich coral system in the 215,950-hectare Sarangani Bay Protected Seascape.

For the first time, the SBPS Protected Area Management Office, headed by Joy Ologuin, rolled out the “Dap-ag Kapalit Bugas” (COTs in exchange for rice) in Maasim, Sarangani province, host of a world-class scuba diving site, to combat the ongoing COTs invasion that broke out since last year.

Ologuin stressed the program aims to contain the damage brought by COTs, which are known coral predators, by tapping on the help of local communities.

She noted that community volunteers, many of them housewives, were first oriented on the proper manner of collection to avert the hazard of being pricked by the starfish’s venomous spines.

For every 300 COTs they can gather, volunteers receive a 25-kg sack of rice.

Ologuin said that since the COTs-for-rice program was launched on January 20, at least 11,275 COTs were plucked out from the sea by volunteers from Barangay Tinoto in Maasim town.

In recognition of their efforts, the PAMO and the local government of Maasim have so far distributed 42 sacks of rice to 30 recipient families residing in Barangay Tinoto.

“We are delighted that most of our volunteers are women. This means the women are strong assets in environmental protection and conservation, especially with issues that needs to be resolved with urgency and active participation,” said Maria Elvira Lumayag, the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Officer of Sarangani.

Ologuin said they were expecting to collect at least 75,000 COTs through the “Dap-ag Kapalit Bugas” program.

The PAMO reported that at least 51,491 COTs have been collected so far across Sarangani Bay.

The effort will continue until our seas are free from the threats brought by these COTs, Ologuin said.

She said the Sarangani Bay has been experiencing COT outbreaks since November 2021.

Considered by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources as a key marine biodiversity area, Sarangani Bay hosts coral resources covering at least 2,293 hectares with 60 important live hard coral species, 411 reef species and 11 species of seagrass.

Coral reefs are considered as the rainforests of the sea, serving as home to a variety of organisms, and serve as shelter, refuge and feeding grounds of juvenile and adult fishes and invertebrates.

COTs prey on nearly all corals, according to the Reef Resilience Network, which noted that COTs outbreaks appear to be increasing in frequency over the last several decades, causing widespread damage to coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific region.

Dense aggregations of COTS can strip a reef of 90% of living coral tissue, the global network stated. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)