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Can a gentle giant of Philippine coral reefs be saved from extinction in the wild?

We once lived in a world full of giants – blue whales freely swimming in our oceans and large animals such as elephants roaming our land. Unfortunately, populations of terrestrial and marine megafauna have declined dramatically in recent years. African elephant populations have declined from an estimated 1.3 million to around 600,000. Populations of big cats like lions and cheetahs have dropped, with Africa’s lion population declining by 90 percent in the last 75 years and cheetahs disappearing from more than 75 percent of their historic range. In the ocean, populations of large marine fish have also declined by 90 percent since the 1950s.

This loss of megafauna is alarming since these iconic animals, often culturally important, play an important role in ecosystem function. Top predators often regulate prey species; without large carnivores like lions, populations of prey species can become unbalanced. Large marine animals, including whales, seabirds and fish, are also believed to have an important role in recycling and spreading nutrients across the planet. They transport these nutrients from the depths of the ocean and take them inland.

In the Philippines, a study by Lavides et al. (2016) and colleagues revealed that some giants of Philippine coral reefs have also been disappearing. The list includes the bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum), which is the largest parrotfish in the world, weighing over 40 kilograms and growing up to 1.3 meters long.

A school of bumphead parrotfish observed foraging on the reef in Tuka Marine Sanctuary, Saranggani Province. Photo by Gary John Cabinta.

In 2015, I was part of a 2-month underwater expedition in search for vulnerable and threatened species identified by Lavides et al. (2016). We laid 700 50-meter transects outside marine protected areas (MPAs) in 5 marine areas in the Philippines — and only a lone bumphead parrotfish was observed in the waters of Honda Bay, Palawan. At that point, I already considered myself lucky to be able to catch a glimpse of this gentle giant.

I have also seen the disappearance of this megafauna reef fish species first-hand during my work in the Northern Philippines. I interviewed 305 fishers from 17 fishing villages and found that 26 out of 34 fishers (76%) who target the bumphead parrotfish reported that this species has disappeared from their catches. Julian Quibilan, a 49-year-old fisher who started fishing in the 1980s, caught a 22-kg bumphead parrotfish in the 1980s.

“In the 1980s, I can still hear the rustling sound made by a schooling bumphead parrotfish while feeding on corals when I spearfish”, a fisher also said when asked about his fishing experience. For the last two decades, the species has been gone from his catch.

Considered as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN Red List, this once common schooling coral reef fish species is rare not just in my study site and in other areas of the Philippines, but also in other regions of the world. This species may be extinct in Guam, Marshall Islands, parts of Fiji and East Africa, and is rapidly declining in Palau because of overexploitation.


A lone bumphead parrotfish observed in Honda Bay, Palawan. Photo by Erina Molina.

The disappearance of the bumphead parrotfish from the marine ecosystem would mean the loss of one of the world’s most iconic and ecologically important reef fishes. By feeding on algae, it helps control algal overgrowth, allowing the healthy growth of corals. The fish also feeds on hard corals and is considered an important bio-eroder. It has the capacity to remove five tonnes of coral every year, producing substantial amount of sediments that shape coral reef structure. These sediments also become the coral sand that can form islets or islands which serve as pit stops for migratory bird species.

Because of its ecological importance, conservation actions have been made for the protection of this species. This includes the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs), specific areas that have been reserved by law and which are governed by specific rules or guidelines to manage activities and protect part or the entire enclosed coastal marine environment.

Schooling bumphead parrotfish are still observed at national MPAs in the Philippines, which are under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act, such as in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and Apo Reef Natural Park. The species was also observed recently (August 2017) in Tuka Marine Park, a locally managed MPA located in Kiamba, Saranggani Province. This tells us that establishing and strengthening marine protected areas with the help of local communities could indeed be one of the solutions to protect this schooling species and encourage the recovery of its population.

It has been more than two years since our underwater expedition and I am optimistic that with different conservation actions being done and through collective effort among local communities, bumphead parrotfish populations will soon bounce back. A school of this gentle giant will be seen more often in Philippine waters, not just for me to appreciate underwater but also for future generations to enjoy.

Erina Pauline Molina is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science at the University of the Philippines Diliman. A former research specialist at the Haribon Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources—a pioneer environmental NGO in the Philippines working on biodiversity conservation—Erina was part of a collaborative research project between the Haribon Foundation and Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. Her work involves spending time with fishermen in different areas in the Philippines with the aim of using their knowledge to help identify vulnerable or locally extinct reef fish species. She aspires to use her research to inform fisheries management. Erina is a 2015 National Geographic Young Explorer grantee and is part of the 2017 Young Explorer Leadership and Development Program.

Erina participated in the National Geographic Society Sciencetelling Bootcamp in Washington. D.C. More than a dozen National Geographic explorers partnered with a team of National Geographic storytellers to develop personal and professional storytelling skills through public speaking, videography, photography, social media and blogging. The multi-day Sciencetelling course was created especially for scientists and conservationists to effectively communicate their work to audiences beyond peer-reviewed journals. A selection of their blog posts, photographs and videos are published on the Sciencetelling Stories blog. Learn more about National Geographic’s Sciencetelling Bootcamp program.