Fishermen land crown-of-thorns starfish that are destroying coral reefs in Southern Leyte. (Photo by Armando Gaviola)
Southern Leyte is embroiled in an “all-out war” against starfish which are being blamed for destroying coral reefs off the coast of the province, a favorite destination for diving enthusiasts. Rio Cahambing, a scuba diver and tour guide, yesterday said a declining number of divers and tourists in the province is the least of his worries. What he is more concerned about is the increasing proliferation of large, toxic and venomous crown-of-thorn starfish (Acanthaster planci) which are threatening not only diving areas but also the province’s main source of livelihood – fishing. For months now, Cahambing said, local leaders and residents have been battling hundreds of thousands of voracious starfish that are turning coral reefs into cold skeletons, which in turn is killing off fish and other marine life. He said “people in affected areas are now coordinating efforts to eradicate the starfish by harvesting them and injecting them with poison.” Areas worst hit include Maasin City, Sogod Bay and Limasawa Island, where most of the province’s famous dive sites and fish sanctuaries are located. The government says it has allocated 5 million pesos (US$116,300) for a coral reef restoration project in Southern Leyte, but coral infestation remains unresolved, Cahambing said. The Bureau of Food and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) has said the starfish infestation has spread to more than 217 hectares of coral lying off seven towns and one city in the province. Areas in neighboring Leyte province are also affected. Fishermen are also using their crude equipment to dive into the sea and collect the starfish by the thousands, and then burning and burying them along the seashore. One harvest in March yielded more than 16,000 of them. According to the BFAR, there is now 1,397 starfish for every 500 square meters of coral, particularly around Limasawa Island. Tourism director Karen Tiopes has asked all concerned agencies, including the Philippine Commission on Sports-Scuba Diving, to immediately address the problem, considering the “negative” impact it poses on tourism and food security.