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  Yahoo News 24 Sep 07
Fish disappear from stressed Philippines coral reefs

Fish species are fast disappearing from Philippine waters as delicate coral reefs, some of the biggest in the world, are destroyed in the archipelago, environmentalists warned Monday.

International marine watchdog group Reef Check painted a devastating picture of the condition of the reefs, which are being damaged and killed by coral bleaching, natural disasters and poor fishing practices.

Only five percent of the reefs -- which shelter and provide food for a vast number of marine species -- are still in pristine condition, it said.

"Philippine coral reefs are in a really bad situation," Domingo Ochavillo, country manager for Reef Check said in an interview with AFP.

Consequently populations of "highly targeted" species such as cod and groupers but also sea cucumbers, moray eels, pencil urchins, banded shrimp and giant clams are fast declining, Ochavillo said.

The watchdog is investigating the extent of coral bleaching in the Southeast Asian nation's waters. About 20 percent of reefs there were killed by bleaching from the El Nino phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean in 1998 alone, it said.

The Philippines and nearby Indonesia, another vast archipelago, account for 30 percent of the world's coral reefs, the group said.

Bleaching combined with overfishing, including using dynamite and poison, have left just 27,000 square kilometres (10,425 square miles) or five percent of the reefs in pristine condition.

"Signature species" such as groupers, the barramundi cod, and the Napoleon wrasse -- already a protected but highly sought fish -- are difficult to find even in areas far from Philippine coast lines, Ochavillo said.

Between 30 and 40 percent of the population -- or up to 35 million people -- live on the coast of the Philippines, described in one US study as the "centre of the centre" of marine biodiversity, and depend on fishing for a living.

"People have been travelling away from normal fishing grounds" in order to fill their catches, and meet the demands of the international aquarium industry, Ochavillo said.

Some coral species grow only an inch (2.54 centimetres) annually, taking years to recover once damaged. But Ochavillo said some reefs declared protected areas in the Philippines have been slowly recovering.

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