• Blue acropora and anthias in the Verde Island Passage.
    The Verde Island Passage is home to a wealth of marine life, like this blue acropora coral and school of vibrant of reef fish. © Bart Shepherd
  • Banton Sanctuary, Verde Island Passage, Philippines.
    The Hope Spot designation will benefit both marine ecosystems and surrounding communities of the Verde Island Passage. © Joal Ascalon
  • Anthias, Verde Island Passage, Philippines.
    The new Hope Spot is home to more species of marine life than any other part of our oceans. © Tofer Morales
  • Community scientists diving in the Verde Island Passage.
    Academy scientists and their international collaborators are looking forward to future research opportunities under the Hope for Reefs initiative. Here, community scientists explore a coral reef. © Joal Ascalon
  • Barracuda gathering in the Verde Island Passage.
    A diver marvels at a gathering of barracudas in the Verde Island Passage. © Gage Veridiano

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (July 21, 2023) — In a major milestone for marine conservation, the Verde Island Passage (VIP) in the Philippines has been named a Hope Spot by international ocean conservation nonprofit Mission Blue. Located within the most biologically diverse waters on Earth, the VIP is heavily trafficked by commercial vessels and passenger ferries, and sustains several other important activities such as fishing and ecotourism. The new designation acknowledges both the rich biodiversity and the cultural and economic significance of the passage, igniting support to safeguard the region as a marine protected area.

Championed by Academy Senior Curator of Invertebrate Zoology Terrence Gosliner, PhD, and De La Salle University Professor Wilfredo “Al” Licuanan, PhD, the declaration is a critical step in garnering further marine protections for the region and advising where conservation managers and policymakers should focus their efforts. Gosliner, who has conducted marine research in the Philippines for more than 30 years, will continue his work through the Academy’s Hope for Reefs initiative to reverse the rapid decline of coral reefs around the world.

“This Hope Spot designation is a testament to years of collaborative efforts from our Hope for Reefs team and our Filipino colleagues,” Gosliner says. “It also recognizes how special the Verde Island Passage is. Home to more species of marine life than any other part of the oceans, it is truly an extraordinary place that must be preserved for future generations.”

The VIP is a major waterway that separates southern Luzon Island from northern Mindoro Island in the Philippines and connects the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to the East Philippine Sea, extending from Lubang Island in the west to Tablas Island in the east. Its 1.14 million hectares of coral reef, mangrove, and seagrass habitats possess a remarkable abundance of marine life, provide livelihoods to millions of people through fishing and ecotourism, serve as a major commercial shipping channel, and house significant industrial complexes along part of its shoreline. Gosliner, Licuanan, and their partners are seeking the inclusion of the Verde Island Passage as a National Integrated Protected Area System of the Philippines and declaration as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area of the International Maritime Organization.

Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue, says, “I want to congratulate Dr. Terrence Gosliner and Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan for doing everything they can with their local communities to protect their blue backyards.” She continues, “Coral reefs are the rainforests of the sea. Let us be inspired by the resilience of these corals and let us be motivated by the urgent need to act.”

Licuanan describes a developing project in the works; a national platform for posting and sharing community-collected monitoring data. He explains, “One of the deliverables for our current United States Agency for International Development (USAID) INSPIRE grant is to create a national clearinghouse for community-collected monitoring data. Data are currently being collected and archived, and once the clearinghouse is established, these data will be migrated to the accessible, open-sourced database.”

The California Academy of Sciences and De La Salle University are conducting primary research on advancing coral rearing and spawning techniques and developing those techniques to be deployed for restoration work in areas that lack natural resilience. They are also collaborating with the ABS-CBN Foundation to train community volunteers to monitor their reefs. BFAR, the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, is interested in the methodology the team is using.

“It’s low-tech but accurate in the data we’re collecting,” explains Gosliner. “If BFAR adopts it, it has the potential to go national. In order for us to achieve our 30x30 goals, resilient reefs need to be identified.” Gosliner and Licuanan are hoping to eventually double the number of communities along the VIP employing monitoring techniques to assess the health of local reefs.

Based on numerous studies, it has been shown that the VIP has vibrant reef fish fauna (Carpenter & Springer, 2005), heterobranch mollusk diversity (Gosliner et al., 2018), ahermatypic (non-reef-building) coral diversity (Cairns, 2007), and echinoid (sea urchins and their relatives) diversity (Mooi, 2014). The passage has been appropriately called the “center of the center'' of marine biodiversity.

Despite conservation efforts and various current protections, the area is facing environmental degradation and threats, including a recent oil spill. The passage represents a major shipping channel in the Philippines and the shoreline of Batangas Bay is populated by numerous industries, including petroleum refineries and chemical plants.

“Working with such dedicated and courageous partners who are deeply committed to both preserving biodiversity and securing the livelihoods of millions of people living in coastal communities has truly been a labor of love,” Gosliner says. “We’re looking forward to continuing our partnership under the new Hope Spot designation.”

About Research at the California Academy of Sciences

The Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences is at the forefront of efforts to regenerate the natural world through science, learning, and collaboration. Based in San Francisco, the Institute is home to more than 100 world-class scientists, state-of-the-art facilities, and nearly 46 million scientific specimens from around the world. The Institute also leverages the expertise and efforts of more than 100 international Associates and 450 distinguished Fellows. Through expeditions around the globe, investigations in the lab, and analysis of vast biological datasets, the Institute’s scientists work to understand the evolution and interconnectedness of organisms and ecosystems, the threats they face around the world, and the most effective strategies for ensuring they thrive into the future. Through deeply collaborative partnerships and innovative public engagement initiatives, they also guide critical conservation decisions worldwide, inspire and mentor the next generation of scientists, and foster responsible stewardship of our planet.

About De La Salle University

De La Salle University positions itself as a leader in molding human resources who serve the church and the nation. It is a Catholic coeducational institution founded in 1911 by the Brothers of the Christian Schools. The University is a hub for higher education training renowned for its academic excellence, prolific and relevant research, and involved community service. The SHORE Center supports the Vision-Mission of the University by providing significant learning activities to enable faculty and students to generate knowledge and technologies that will foster good stewardship of the seas and coastlines, and lay the groundwork for community development, and social transformation, particularly among the youth and disadvantaged members of the coastal communities.

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