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Interconnectivity of Mangrove, Seagrass, and Coral Reef Habitats and

its Implications on Evaluating the Success of Marine Protected Areas in

the Philippines
Katrina A. Abenojar
Submitted to Dr. Severino G. Salmo III on December 13, 2015

The component habitats of marine environments, namely mangrove forests, seagrass
beds, and coral reefs, exhibit physico-chemical as well as faunal interconnectivity, which result
in far reaching destructive effects on even just one connected ecosystem. MPAs are created to
protect the marine environment from further overexploitation and degradation that they are
exposed to, and networks of these can cover the different interconnected habitats. The current
parameters most often being used to measure the ecological success of marine protected area
(MPAs), namely coral cover and fish density, are insufficient for adequately evaluating the
effects of protection and its different factors, i.e. site selection of different components, size, and
age, as these may not be holistically indicative of improvements, and time for effects to be
observed vary greatly depending on the species composition in MPAs. A few proposed
indicators, guided by the current understanding of habitat interconnectivity within the ecosystem,
are species richness and abundance at different trophic levels, coral colony formation, new
species being present, species composition inside and outside MPAs, indicator species, and water
quality. Current knowledge on habitat interconnectivity in the Philippines is still limited, and
further study on aspects such as dependence on site characteristics, indicators of habitat health in
the past, and possible habitat recovery enhancement, can help improve the ways MPA success is
measured, contribute a larger knowledge base to studies in the concerned habitats, as well as
further the success of MPAs themselves.
Habitat Interconnectivity and Anthropogenic Stressors of Marine Ecosystems
Marine ecosystems are threatened largely by unsustainable anthropogenic activity on
different component habitats, namely mangrove forests, seagrass beds or meadows, and coral
reefs. These habitats are interconnected, so anthropogenic activity in one habitat can have
cascade effects and impact other habitats. They are connected by physico-chemical factors and
faunal interaction.
Physico-chemical interconnectivity
The physico-chemical connectivity of mangrove, seagrass, and coral reef habitats can be
described with the benefits that each provide to the others that are important for their proper
functioning. Physical factors include their effects on water currents and sedimentation, and
chemical factors include export and usage of nutrients.
Among the three habitats, coral reefs are found furthest away from the shore. The growth
of these reefs create a hydrodynamic barrier to protect seagrass and mangroves from wave
energy, especially during storms which create larger disturbances. Seagrass growth is known to
be enhanced with the presence of such barriers (White et al., 2006). Coral reefs are actively
producing carbonate materials, and when large amounts of these are broken down and washed
ashore, shoals, islands, and beaches can be formed, creating areas which seagrasses and
mangroves can eventually colonize.
Seagrass can form extensive beds of one or more dominant species with the Philippines
being recorded to have highly diverse seagrass beds of up to thirteen species, and a factor of this
diversity is the physical disturbance which occur in tropical coastal waters often as tropical
storms (Duarte et al., 1997). Seagrass function in trapping and stabilizing sediments to prevent
these from possibly being transported during typhoons and covering coral reefs. These also help
to slow water movement and act as a barrier for mangroves together with coral reefs.
Mangroves protect seagrass and coral reefs by trapping runoff sediments from upland as
they stabilize and lessen erosion of coastlines. This reduces the sediment load and prevents high
nutrient inputs, protecting the seagrass and coral reefs. These act also as a physical barrier to
reduce the freshwater inflow into the marine environment, to help buffer changes in salinity
(White et al. 2006).
In the three habitats, the flora require inorganic nutrients, particularly phosphorus and
nitrogen, and their needed levels vary. Mangroves can tolerate high nutrient inputs and seagrass
can tolerate high rates of eutrophication, while coral reefs grow best in low nutrient areas
because they recycle nutrients and do not tolerate influxes from outside sources. This inorganic
nutrient loading from land can be absorbed by both mangroves and seagrass to protect coral reefs
from this reefs (White et al. 2006).
Faunal interconnectivity
The faunal connectivity of the three habitats can be described with the animal migration
between occurring between these. In a study (Nakamura et al., 2003) done in the Philippines in
Puerto Galera off of northern Mindoro Island and Laguindingan off of northern Mindanao Island,
with surveying during the rainy and dry seasons in 2010 and 2011, it was found that species
richness and abundance of fishes in coral habitats is significantly higher than in seagrass and
mangroves, with 199, nine, and 15 species respectively. In total, 29 fish species were found to
utilize multiple habitats, and these differ between species which inhabit multiple habitats but do
not change preference after settlement, and species which as juveniles use seagrass and/or
mangroves as nursery grounds with seven confirmed species, and as adults use these for feeding
and shelter. Six species were found in each combination of two habitats and eight species were
recorded in all three.
Mangrove export of organic carbon was found to have a strong relationship with fish
abundance in the Indo-Pacific region suggesting that this stimulates the surrounding habitats
food webs (Unsworth et al., 2008). One hectare of healthy mangroves can produce about 1.08
t/year of fish (Schatz, 1991) through its contribution to the food web: detritus consisting of
decomposing leaves with fungi and bacteria are eaten by crabs, mollusks and shrimp, which also
find shelter among roots, eaten by small fish, and these eaten by larger fish (Schatz, 1991),
especially when inundated by tide and fish from seagrass beds and coral reefs may access
mangrove areas to forage for food (Unsworth et al., 2008). Mangroves observed in Pagbilao
recorded 128 fish species, most of these being benthic or benthopelagic (Pinto, 2006), indicating
that fish found in mangroves are exported to other habitats. Close proximity of mangroves to
seagrass relates to higher populations of fish in seagrass beds compared to those distant from
mangroves due to this availability of mangroves feeding grounds and shelter from predation
(Unsworth et al., 2008).
Seagrass beds provide space and shelter for organisms ranging from small algae to large
marine mammals which live in nearshore coastal areas. Many large animals like Dugong and
green sea turtles graze in this area, and many species of species of shrimps, sea cucumbers, sea
urchins, seahorses, scallops, mussels, and snails totally depend on seagrasses (DENR et al.,
2001). Many juvenile fish are more abundant in seagrass areas further away from coral reefs
(Kochzius, 1997), most likely to avoid predators from coral reefs. These are important feeding
grounds and nursery areas for fish from the coral reef which migrate to seagrasses daily or
seasonally. Many reef fishes can be found in seagrass beds during the day and night depending
on their diurnal pattern of activity to feed on crustacean fauna, often followed by their predators.
During their early life stages as fish larvae they settle down in seagrass beds to find food and
protection from predators until they are mature and migrate to the coral reef (Kochzius, 1997).
These reef fish are the primary exporters of organic matter and nutrients to adjacent coral reefs,
and more fish species are found in seagrass areas adjacent to coral reefs than those which are not
(Kochzius, 1997). Fish abundance, richness, and trophic structure are significantly influenced by
proximity to mangroves and reefs.
Coral reefs have high productivity while being low in nutrients and energy, because of the
high biodiversity found here which efficiently captures and recycles nutrients and sunlight
(DENR et al., 2001). Coral reefs serve as the habitats for adult and sub-adult species of fish and
invertebrate serving as essential spawning, nursery, breeding, and feeding grounds, with many
organisms having come from seagrass and mangrove habitats at early life stages. Many of the
fish and invertebrates exported to coral reefs were also recruited by seagrass and mangroves as
larvae from these reefs (White et al., 2006). Coral reefs also export fish and invertebrate adults to
mangroves and seagrasses where they have daily feeding migrations to forage in these habitats,
these including predators of juveniles, and these are also exported to offshore waters (White et
al., 2006). Coral recruitment can be benefited by the presence of herbivores as they reduce algal
competition and these can be exported by mangroves and seagrasses (Davies et al., 2013)
Faunal interconnectivity is dependent on animal migration and contributions to the food
web, however this and also physico-chemical interconnectivity is also dependent on the
proximity of habitats to each other, and the health and extent of these adjacent habitats
(Unsworth et al., 2008).
Anthropogenic stress
Humans pose threats to these habitats with their unsustainable use. This includes direct
impacts like overexploitation and destructive uses, and indirect effects like pollution.
Overexploitation will harm normal ecosystem functioning because resources extracted at
a high intensity cannot be sufficiently replaced as rapidly, whether naturally or artificially (White
et al. 2006). Destructive uses of the coral reefs include explosive fishing, cyanide fishing, and
trawling close to reefs. This is unsustainable use as it removes the places where growth and
reproduction of target and non-target species occur. An example of this can be seen in the
Visayan Sea which used to be one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the Philippines.
The massive habitat loss and degradation, and close to collapsing stocks in this region was a
result of overfishing by small scale municipal fishers and commercial fleets, i.e. vessels
exceeding three gross tons; the former which use increasingly destructive fishing practices, and
the latter which regularly intrude into municipal fishing grounds (Schmidt, 2004).
Municipal fisheries include aquaculture in fish pens and cages in nearshore areas and in
once mangrove areas. In Philippine law, these municipal fishing grounds, defined as waters
extending 15 km from the coastline, are assigned to municipal fishers, and beyond that to
commercial fishers, but with an option to allow the latter to fish from 10.1 to 15km from the
shoreline with permits (Cruz-Trinidad, et al., 2002).
Forms of overfishing from a biological viewpoint are growth overfishing, when immature
fish are captured before reproduction and harvesting age; recruitment overfishing, when too
many adult fish are caught so that fish reproduction is impaired and the recruitment of young fish
for replenishing stocks is compromised; and ecosystem overfishing, when a once abundant fish
stock declines from fishing and is not compensated by an increase in other fish species stocks.
Another category where municipal fishers overfishing can fall under is Malthusian
overfishing, when poor fishermen, faced with declining catches and lacking any other
alternative, initiate wholesale resource destruction in their effort to maintain their incomes. This
may involve in order of seriousness, and generally in temporal sequence:1) use of gear and mesh
sizes not sanctioned by the government; 2) use of gear not sanctioned within the fisherfolk
communities and/or catching of fish reserved for a certain segment of the community; 3) use
of gear that destroy the resource base; and 4) use of gear such as dynamite or sodium cyanide
that do all of the above and even endanger the fisherfolks themselves (Pauly, 1990).
Pollution can come from many sources and have different effects on the marine
environment. The following are described in Creating and Managing Marine Protected Areas in
the Philippines (White et al. 2006):
Sewage containing detergents will interfere with organisms physiological processes
while those containing fertilizers and nutrient-rich waste can cause eutrophication and stimulate
excessive growth of phytoplankton, algae, and other plants which is beyond that which
herbivores can balance. After phytoplankton bloom, zooplankton blooms can occur and
eventually result in increased bacterial production which deplete available oxygen as it
decomposes the dead organisms. Algae overgrowth can also smother sessile organisms such as
corals and prevent their normal feeding and breathing. The same is an effect of pollution by
sedimentation, and an added effect of this is higher water turbidity reducing light penetration and
the photosynthesis this allows for.
Herbicides can destroy the zooxanthellae in coral tissue, giant clams, and other sessile
organisms and cut off their means of obtaining food. Even at low concentrations, herbicides can
damage or kill phytoplankton, algae, and seagrass. Pesticides on the other hand are harmful to
plankton larvae and also destroy zooplankton.
The pollution with petroleum hydrocarbons has a wide range of damaging effects to
marine organism survival, growth, reproduction, photosynthesis, larval sediment, feeding and
behavior. Contact with these can coat plants and animals breathing organs and raise body
temperature, while this coating the water or sediments contained can raise sea temperatures by
up to 10oC and kill organisms, many which do not tolerate such large temperature gradients.
These pollutants have stronger detrimental effects to larvae populations which are more
vulnerable than adults by 10-100 times. These often come from oil spills in large quantities and
its effects are also dependent on weather conditions, tides, and interactions with other pollutants
which can aggravate these.
Anti-fouling paints and agents often from major harbors, shipping, lanes, and industrial
plants which are cooled by seawater can destroy zooplankton and reef communities, and heated
water is a major threat because marine environments depend on temperature for species
distribution and reproduction. Heavy metals such as mercury, cadmiu, and lead most
significantly from mining activities tend to bio-accumulate in lant and animal tissues and as it
goes up the food chain, undergoes bio-magnification in large predators and possibly accumulate
lethal concentrations.
Effects of anthropogenic stress on interconnected habitats
Habitat destruction results in reduced ecosystem services across the marine and coastal
environment. Destruction of mangroves will remove its ecosystem services and allow freshwater
to more easily mix with sea water, eroded materials to flow onto seagrass beds and coral reefs
which cause lowering in salinity, shading and eutrophication of these ecosystems, and in turn
minimize their services as they are degraded. Removing seagrass will result in unstable
sediments which it once held, habitat destruction for juvenile species, and decrease primary
production for other organisms to feed on and lowering dissolved oxygen, all having detrimental
effects on surrounding seagrass beds, mangroves, and coral reefs. The actual removal of the coral
reef framework from destructive fishing practices or degradation from sedimentation and
nutrient loading will lower the level of protection it can provide for seagrass and mangrove
ecosystems, decrease exported fish and invertebrates to these habitats, and allow further erosion
of sediments from the coasts.
The effects of human interference in coral reefs are often emphasized, however the
effects on mangroves and seagrasses cannot be ignored because of far reaching consequences to
the environment due to its high interconnectivity. This affects the ecological services being
provided to humans, and hence it negatively affects the humans which are the sources of
interference in their overexploitation, destructive use, and pollution of the environment.
Marine Protected Areas and Networks
There is a need for humans to regain maximum ecological services which must first start
with decreasing negative impacts on marine and coastal environments in order to restore
ecosystem health. Marine protected areas, or MPAs are being established for this purpose. These
refer to areas in the marine environment under a special management program in order to protect
the site and other parts these are connected to, and allow these to flourish and recover from
destructive use. These specific areas and guidelines are declared by city or municipal ordinances,
or included in the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS), those under the latter
being defined as outstanding remarkable areas and biologically important public lands that are
habitats of rare and endangered species of plants and animals, biogeographic zones and related
ecosystems (DENR et al., 2001).
Terms used to describe MPAs that were agreed upon in a national workshop (Arceo et al.,
2004) are: marine sanctuaries, which prohibit all extractive practices, i.e. no-take MPAs; marine
reserves where strict restrictions of sanctuaries are not imposed in the entire area but allow for
controlled access and activities like boating and sustainable fishing techniques, and for sanctuary
zones within these; and marine parks where multiple uses are encouraged and zonation is
implemented to allow for education, recreation, and preservation, and can also include sanctuary
As marine areas can encompass different kinds of habitats such as coral reefs, seagrass
beds, and mangrove forests which are interconnected, and have different levels of biodiversity
and health, site selection must have scientific basis and be present in greater numbers to better
encompass key habitats as an MPA network. MPA networks are being established to make these
more effective in improving the health of marine ecosystems damaged by anthropogenic impacts
(Alio et al., 2014). These networks also have more far reaching effects by helping prevent
pollution which would otherwise not be considered if MPAs were only found off-shore.
Selecting MPA sites are based on their potential for fisheries enhancement. This includes
habitat quality: better than the average indicated by coral cover, seagrass, water quality, and
others; fish habitat: with high abundance, density, and richness of fish or having spawning fish;
oceanography: areas with favorable currents to keep larvae and organisms in the MPA while
periodically flushing to areas outside being fished; biodiversity: areas with a range of large to
small animals on the food chain; size: at least 10 ha but ideally 20 ha or more of critical fisheries
habitat; social acceptance: not encompassing most desired fishing grounds and not creating
social conflicts; and quality of management: areas which can sufficiently enforce rules to ensure
MPA benefits (White et al., 2006).
Current status of MPAs in the Philippines
Currently, no-take MPAs protect 0.5% of coastal municipal waters and 2.7% to 3.4% of
coral reef area in the Philippines (Magdaong et al., 2014). Of these sites, 162 are monitored.
Point intercept transect (PIT) and line intercept transect (LIT) methods were used by 84% of
collated studies to measure percent coral cover. Factors affecting MPAs were level of protection,
whether fully protected or partially protected, age, and size. The trend in absolute and annual rate
of change of coral cover showed a general increase with sites within MPAs having a significantly
higher coral cover than non-MPAs (Magdaong et al., 2014). The rate of change in coral cover
was not significantly different with protected and partially protected MPAs. Coral cover
remained constant in young MPAs (<5 years), and significantly increased with mid-age (6-20
years) and old (>20 years) MPAs. Coral cover significantly improved in MPAs sized 10-40 ha
and >40 ha but not in those <10 ha (Magdaong et al., 2014). Coral cover changes may be
affected by the level of destruction: extreme and small losses had slow rates of change while
medium to high levels of coral decline showed immediate recovery (Magdaong et al., 2014).
This rate of change, and the lag time experienced before coral cover improvement in
MPAs was also dependent on dominant lifeforms or coral morphology and species in the area:
branching corals have higher growth rates than massive corals (Magdaong et al., 2014). The
coral bleaching events caused by increased sea surface temperatures brought about by the El
Nino Southern Oscillation occurred in years 1982-1983, 1987-1988, 1997-1998, and 2010 with
only the 1997-1998 event considered in the analysis showing an absolute coral cover change of
-8.07%, however, impacts of this vary from site to site depending on bleaching duration
experienced, dominant coral populations being sensitive to bleaching, and reef current speeds
(Magdaong et al., 2014). Fish density was higher in MPAs mostly due to fished reefs having
more of fishes exploited in non-MPAs, and overall density of fish within MPAs was similar
during the first several years with only previously exploited fish increasing significantly in this
period (Maliao et al., 2009). The size and age of reserves did not correlate with patterns of fish
density change, however this was always higher in larger and older reserves relative to smaller
and younger reserves.
Indicators for MPA success
Studies have shown that rates of coral cover change and reserve characteristics examined,
i.e. level of protection, age and size, had no apparent relationship (Maliao et al., 2009; Magdaong
et al., 2014). These are aggregated results from different MPAs over the country and coral cover
change may not appropriately represent increasing health of these MPAs with different situations
and site specificity. Different parameters should be explored in measuring MPA success which
will consider the other effects that MPAs could have, especially since these cover habitats other
than coral reefs, and have far reaching effects due to physico-chemical and faunal
interconnectivity. Examples of these are found in another study evaluating management
effectiveness of MPAs in Calamianes Islands, Palawan Province, Philippines instead of coral
cover and fish density, other biological indicators used for evaluating MPAs are focal species
abundance and their population structure, i.e. abundance at different life stages, habitat
distribution and complexity, recruitment success within the community, food web integrity, and
type, level, and return on fishing effort (Garces et al., 2013). These have more integration of
different aspects of healthy ecosystems rather than the typical coral reef cover which is highly
affected by frequent coral bleaching events and coral species and general fish density which
varies with species having been overexploited or not.
In addition to these existing parameters, others can be explored which take into
consideration the ecological functions of habitats encompassed by MPAs. These can be the
Species richness at different trophic levels and ideal abundance at each trophic level. This
can indicate improving species composition compared to what was heavily modified by
anthropogenic impacts.
Coral colony formation as a count of each colony rather than coral cover. This can better
represent recruitment of young corals creating new coral colony formations that are more likely
in reefs with herbivore activity and this is contributed to by proper trophic structure improving
from trophic cascade caused by overexploitation of target species.
New species present within MPAs. This can indicate the return of organisms which were
not present because of habitat degradation and indicates improving health of the ecosystem,
involving improving parameters that these organisms are sensitive to, but may be currently
undistinguishable to scientists or these parameters not considered.
Species composition inside and outside reserves. This can also be important as an
evidence of species preference in ecosystems with better health, and changes in composition
outside reserves can indicate that MPAs are not only improving within but also exhibiting
spillover effects to surrounding areas. Important species would be those affected by the trophic
cascades resulting from changes in abundance of higher trophic level organisms. These will need
to be studied or previously observed and may be very site specific owing to different biodiversity
found and targeted in different biogeographic regions where MPAs can be found.
In line with new species present and species composition inside and outside reserves,
indicator species can also be used as a parameter to assess MPA success. These would be
sensitive organisms being found in healthy ecosystems, and can be determined by older
fishermen or locals with experience on their specific regions biodiversity especially when they
fish in new or healthy grounds including those in the past.
Water quality in terms of nutrient load and sedimentation in select areas within MPAs
covering seagrass and mangrove habitats. This can indicate functioning seagrass and mangrove
habitats resulting from successful protection and improvement of these habitats.
Knowledge gaps
The suggested parameters can further be improved, added to, and narrowed down to
create standards for measuring success of different MPAs the Philippines which are more
representative despite site specific differences such as habitat composition. To do this, more
understanding is needed on interconnectivity of different habitats and species interaction in the
food web. It will also be important to gather historical catch records from fishermen and match
these with determined periods of mangrove deforestation or degradation of seagrasses and coral
reefs from the start of destructive fishing practices to better understand changes in species
composition in relation to interconnectivity with other habitats. These records can show what
should be expected as the ecosystem recovers and help in constructing indicators for extended
MPA success that can have minimal maintenance as it is based on species composition in
fishermens catch, or for determining indicator species to be used in evaluating MPA success.
Current studies on MPA improvement and implementation are mostly just on the side of
recording data and implementing restrictions. However, the purpose of MPAs would best be met
with faster recovery. Research can be done on effects of artificial habitat recovery on MPA
success, provided that studies are also adequately done on proper intervention strategies
grounded with scientific basis and considering principles of interconnectivity.
Interconnectivity of habitats especially those not in close proximity would also tend to be
dependent on surface and underwater currents affecting the flow of material being exported and
exchanged, and recruitment of different organisms. Although habitats are interconnected, these
influence the channels allowing for these interconnections. Further studies can be done on these
patterns because water movements really depend on the specific site and the season or weather
conditions. This can increase understanding on more strategic locations for MPA site placement
or size.
Although MPA distribution is noted within marine different biogeographic regions which
are based on ocean circulation and evolutionary geology, further studies can also be done on the
different effects on habitats and habitat interconnectivity to better assess MPA successes which
may be influenced by being located in different regions. These regions are the Celebes Sea,
Northern Philippine Sea, South China Sea, Southern Philippine Sea, Sulu Sea, and Visayan Sea
(Alio and Gomez, 1994).
The spatial distribution and delineation of the different habitats relative to one another is
not well documented in the Philippines, although study has been done on reef connectivity in the
South China Sea (Juinio-Meez et al., 2001), and studies on this can improve understanding on
the levels of physico-chemical and especially faunal interconnectivity exhibited by these habitats
depending on their spatial relationships with one another. This can also help improve the context
that further studies on mangroves, seagrass, and coral reefs will be done to guide their site
selection for sampling by introduce possible factors exhibiting different effects on sites which
may otherwise have been intended as a controlled variable.
Different habitats exhibit physico-chemical as well as faunal interconnectivity, and are
increasingly being protected by marine protected areas (MPAs) over the country to prevent
damage from unsustainable anthropogenic uses and allow recovery. MPA status in the
Philippines has improved since the beginning of these, however the current parameters generally
used to measure MPA ecological success which namely coral cover and fish density,
insufficiently reflect the impacts of differing MPA factors and do not take into account
interconnectivity of component habitats. A few proposed indicators, guided by the current
understanding of physico-chemical and faunal interconnectivity within the ecosystem, are
species richness at different trophic levels and ideal abundance at each trophic level, coral colony
formation, new species being present, species composition inside and outside MPAs, indicator
species, and water quality. Current knowledge on habitat interconnectivity in the Philippines is
still limited, such as lack of integration of aiding recovery with ecologically sound intervention
in MPAs and its effects on success, habitat distribution and delineation, lack of documentation of
differences within the many different biogeographic regions found in the Philippines, and
unknown effects of different currents on the channels allowing for interconnectivity. Further
study on these knowledge gaps, aided by fishermen which can recount undocumented past status
of MPA, can help improve the parameters and indicators for evaluating MPA success, contribute
a to a more site-specific understanding of seagrass, mangrove, and coral reef interconnectivity in
the Philippines, increase the knowledge base for studies in the concerned habitats, as well as
further the success of MPAs themselves.
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