Marine Ecology with Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan


NACRE is the technical term of mother of pearl, the shiny part of the shell. But NACRE is also the name of a national program, a three-year effort funded by a council of DOST, that supports projects on marine conservation.

The man behind the name, and a lot of the research, marine scientist and DLSU University Fellow Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan claims that only the nerds will get it at first… but he takes the time to sit down and tell us more about traveling with the reefs in mind.

The last time an assessment was done was 40 years ago, during the time of Dr. Gomez and Alcala, who are both national scientists now. They created this scale, based on live coral cover, the proportion of the surface of the reef covered by coral. The best category which they call excellent was equivalent to more than 3/4 of the surface covered by coral.

We didn’t find those reefs anymore. We followed a sampling scheme to make sure the results are valid and can be extrapolated to the other places we haven’t been to. Based on that sampling, we didn’t encounter a single excellent category reef.

So, in 40 years, we lost the excellent category reefs. In 20 years, we lost a third of our corals. (The 20 years is in relation to a study that Dr. Gomez and I published in 2000.) When in the 40-year period? We can only guess.

We need to find out where the good ones [coral reefs] are left to make sure we don’t lose them as well. If all we have are these assessments—every 10 years, 20 years or 40 years—this will only tell you what we lost. Monitoring can reveal to us early signs of something happening, something that we can still reverse—not just talk about what we lost. We need the assessment to find out where we can potentially focus efforts at rehabilitation. Although, rehabilitation has certain risks as pointed out.

There are a lot of well-meaning tourists, both local and international, that are being lured into these sorts of activities when they’re actually doing more harm.


A lot of people think corals are rocks. Corals are animals. They don’t know because most people who have seen corals see only the skeleton. ‘Yung puti—things they put in an aquaria, terraria, and gardens.

Corals and coral reefs are not the same thing. Coral reef is the accumulation of thousands of years of coral growth. When these animals are in conditions where they are able to grow well, growing well means producing a lot of skeleton. And the accumulation of these skeletons are called reefs.

I believe the ideal rehabilitation is removing the stressors and leaving it [the reefs] alone. It can take care of itself. When a US war ship, USS Guardian, ran aground in Tubbataha in 2013, a lot of sectors were pushing, “Okay, let’s fix the reef.” And I said, “No, leave it alone.” The Tubbataha Management chose to leave it alone.

When we checked on it after 4 years, the reef was healing. Give it another 5 years, and you won’t be able to distinguish the scars. So that means 9 years total [to let it] fix itself. Wala kang gagastusin doon. Some of the “fixing methods” [ex. coral gardening] could cost you 4-6 million [pesos] per hectare. We have more than 500 species. So, the current technology is not enough to restore the diversity of the original reef. [And] fixing a reef with current technology is not cost-effective.

If you want to fix a reef, you have to keep those corals going for thousands of years: Who’s willing to sign a contract for a thousand years? You have to live long enough before we pay you for the delivery.


There’s still a lot of research and development that needs to be done—and for the public to latch on to something that’s still in development, that’s equivalent to trying an untested cure to an ailment. Chances are it will create more harm.

We have a lot of resort operations, particularly in the Visayas, that are luring tourists from overseas: Come to the Philippines, help us rehabilitate our and do [coral] gardening.

The Revised Fisheries Code states that the mere gathering of the coral already requires a permit from the Bureau of Fisheries. That permit has to be signed by the Department of Agriculture Secretary. Most people—at best—have a Mayor’s Permit but that’s actually the starting point. The Mayor’s Permit is the starting point for the National Permit. So, these operations are illegal.

There was a time I was asked to review textbook for grade school. Back then, the curricular standards required that coral reefs be introduced to our school kids in public schools in Grade 5. I reviewed the textbook and I found two pages about coral reefs. I reviewed the Teacher's’ Manual, to teach about those two pages—and it also had the same two pages. Unfortunately, our teachers do not have the material to allow them to teach about the sea effectively.

I bring a lot of kids—a lot of people— to the reefs. They get really excited—they get overwhelmed. And I go, “But you’re looking at a degraded reef.” This is something my colleagues pointed out a long time ago—they call it a problem of shifting baselines. If the first reef you see is a degraded one, and you don’t know it, that is your standard for a good reef. “Noong bata ako… ganito, ganyan.” Each generations’ standard of a good coral reef is poorer than the previous one’s. So you actually need that 40-year old study to remind us that, for a previous generation, that’s nothing.

We have a lot of species and it takes a lifetime to learn all of them. Most people know the difference between a bamboo tree and a coconut tree. Can you name the types of corals that you know?

I have taught a few courses with the title, “Marine Biology for Non-Biologists.” Before we start it, I’d say, “Okay, describe that coral to me.” And sa terms pa langsusubukan i-describe to me in text messaging and I go, “Uh...”


Travelers should know that their mere presence is already having an impact. Your being there did some damage already. Go somewhere and make up for it.


There are a lot of assumptions being made about the sea that actually only apply to land. For example, a child picks up a hermit crab: “Ang cute! Let’s bring it home!” And an elder goes, “Okay, just keep it underwater and it should be okay.” No. Large bodies of water change temperature very slowly. Small bodies of water [change] quickly. If you take any marine organism, thinking that as long as it’s underwater, it’s okay, the very first thing that will kill it is temperature.

There is a huge misconception about science globally. For most people, science is “memoryahin mo lang ‘yan and you’re okay.” Ibig sabihin pagdating sa course: “Ah memoryahin mo lang corals are animals, plants living inside them, they need clear waters and sea water with them”— you should be okay—most of the time you should be okay.

But does that prepare you for somebody who says, “Come to the Philippines. Stay in our resort. Help us fix our reef by gardening.” Will that help you? Not really.

Science is a way of thinking. Science is a way of processing. One of the things we try to teach is that science is not in the business of proving things. We make progress by disproving. If there’s a phenomenon that needs explanation, we enumerate all the possible answers for that phenomenon—explanations—we try to disprove as many of them as we can. What we cannot disprove, that’s the one that gets “proven” eventually.

Travelers should know that their mere presence is already having an impact. The latest controversy, I’m sure you’ve heard about it—a lot of sunscreens are shown to be damaging to corals. Travelers have to earn the privilege [of traveling]… Okay, you saw the reef. Your being there did some damage already. Go somewhere and make up for it.

My first reef, I saw at age five. But I was terrified because I don’t know how to swim. I signed up for Marine Science and I only learned to swim the summer before classes started.

My job as a teacher is to make sure that the generation after mine do not make the same mistakes—similar mistakes. In the process of doing that, a student inevitably would ask, “Anong ginawa mo? Bakit mo pinabayaan?” My motivation is to able to look my students in the eyes and go “Well, I did my part. I tried. I tried really hard.”

I get tired. It’s exhausting. A colleague called biodiversity scientists the obituary writers of nature and it’s true. Our job is to document what we’re losing, or document them before we lose them. It’s depressing—you have to be able to switch off, and I do.

The field of ecology… it’s a science of successive approximations—each time you don’t get the answer exactly right so we just have to keep working so the answer is better each time.