The young ‘sea scouts’ saving Batangas’ coral reefs

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Students of De La Salle University Integrated School are immersed in coastal communities as part of a bigger dream to involve people in the conservation and protection of Philippine seas. Photo courtesy of SEA SCOUTS OFFICE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Imagine this: a world without coral reefs. The once colorful world at the bottom of our oceans bereft of color. The teeming life down under becoming gray coral skeletons with webs of brown algae. These fields of soft and hard corals — once live animals — flattened into lifeless rocks and disintegrated into ashes.

“There are days that I’m scared of what my future would be,” says 19-year-old Etienne Cancio, student of De La Salle University Integrated School (DLSU-IS) and a member of the Sea Scouts Auxiliary program. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to walk out of my house and breathe air without needing a gas mask. I don’t know if I’d be able to eat food without fear of being poisoned by mercury or by plastic. These are real fears,” he adds.

Cancio has always been curious of the awe-inspiring life at sea. After watching “Finding Nemo,” he continued reading and learning about marine biology. At the age of six, he already had his own saltwater aquarium. “In the process, I learned not only about marine life but also the issues concerning marine life,” he narrates.

When DLSU-IS first introduced the Sea Scouts Auxiliary program to its grade six students in 2014, he excitedly applied and became a member of its pioneer batch. With this program, students are immersed in the coastal communities and are also taught on how to survey different kinds of marine species.

“You can read and surf the net all you want about these issues, but you won’t realize the gravity of these problems until you experience them first hand,” says Cancio. He has experienced snorkeling and seeing healthy corals on one side and bleached and dead corals on the other. In some cases, they had to walk or swim through waters riddled with trash.

Photo-2 (8).jpg With the Sea Scouts program, students are also taught on how to survey different kinds of marine species. Photo courtesy of SEA SCOUTS OFFICE

The Sea Scouts Auxiliary program is an offshoot of the Sea Scouts program catering to the three communities surrounding Talim Bay in Lian, Batangas. The Sea Scouts program was launched in 2007 as a collaboration with the Department of Natural Resources’ Turtle Chikiting Patrol, a project to train kids to protect the nests of turtles on the bay.

The youth patrol was formed when the local government found out that residents from the community eat turtle eggs. To make learning sustainable and continuous, professors Al Licuanan and Maricar Samson, both marine biologists, decided to create a ladderized program for the community to educate them on the different aspects of the marine environment.

“We started with the older ones, the actual fishermen, pero hirap na hirap kami,” says Samson, who specializes on marine plants, specifically mangroves and sea grass. “Then, we decided to start with the young kids instead. We believe that the young kids are the ones who will take care of the environment when they grow up.”

They managed to recruit 50 kids from three barangays, from ages seven to 18 years old. From the Chikiting Patrols, the Talim Bay Sea Scouts was established. Fast forward to 2012, Licuanan and Samson established a program with the local public school, Lumanyag Elementary School. “We chose the school because that’s where most of the fishermen are from. Their fathers were usually dynamite fishers,” says Samson.

The auxiliary group’s main focus is on the information education campaign. This is to facilitate future sea scouts training in Batangas. Those living by the coast focus on implementation and action. “Whenever the LGU has [a] coastal clean-up program or [a] mangrove tree planting project, they ask our sea scouts on the ground,” adds Samson. This is also part of the LGU’s five-year Coastal Resource Management Plan to easily mobilize conservation projects.

“Information just amassed and not put into practice is basically useless,” says Dana Villano, a DLSU-IS Grade 10 student and member of the auxiliary’s second batch of recruits. “The Sea Scouts programs connect two worlds: the research world and local communities. It uses information found through scientific method and research, and information passed down through generations of old fishing techniques or how the environment used to look like,” adds Cancio.

“The idea is not to train them as scientists, but to train them to become informed citizens because we need more of those in coastal areas.” — Al Licuanan

Licuanan says that making a link between scientific data and its impact to people can be difficult because there’s a long story behind it, one that could not easily engage the public.

For example, corals provide hiding places and habitats to different marine creatures. As time goes by, eroded reefs become more flat, making it less ideal for fish to stay in because there’s no more place to hide. The population of small fish is depleted. Consequently, bigger fish will also leave the area. Hence, the livelihood and food security of the community becomes gravely threatened.

A little over 90 percent of live coral cover data gathered from 166 stations across 31 provinces in the Philippines were classified in the poor and fair categories, according to the recent Nationwide Assessment of Philippine Coral Reefs. None of the sampled reefs were in the excellent category.

Now, on his third year in the program, Cancio assesses the impact the sea scouts have on the community. Locals already know how to survey mangroves and measure diversity in coral. “They are genuinely interested in what we’re teaching them. It’s not just fun for them. They teach their friends and family what’s happening and how to avoid these threats.”

Photo-1 (3).jpg The Sea Scouts program was launched in 2007 as a collaboration with the Department of Natural Resources’ Turtle Chikiting Patrol, a project to train kids to protect the nests of turtles on the bay. Photo courtesy of SEA SCOUTS OFFICE

With the Philippines being at the heart of the coral triangle and including the Sulu Sea, the richest ecoregion for corals (with 505 species), the presence of coral reefs helps block storm surges and tsunamis from hitting the coastal community. Corals and other marine species dependent on it also prove vital in medical research, as they can also affect tourism. According to Licuanan, a healthy reef produces one to five kilograms of white sand per year per square meter.

Today, the people’s organization and the rest of the communities in Talim Bay offer a marine environmental tour for students. With a minimal fee to finance the guarding of the sanctuary, one can experience a mangrove walking tour, mangrove tree planting, and snorkeling.

“The idea is not to train them as scientists, but to train them to become informed citizens because we need more of those in coastal areas,” says Licuanan of the community. The Sea Scouts program is a smaller project for a bigger dream to involve everyone in the conservation and protection of our seas.

“Environmental awareness is not just a personal issue. It should be worked on as a whole community,” says Villano. “We want to focus on developing that love for the environment and together with that burning desire to be the catalyst of change; to help and not just read about these issues; to change our practices for environmental conservation.”