Marine Conservation Philippines
Volunteer in Marine Conservation Philippines

Research Projects

The following research project ideas are meant to give an idea and about research topics of interest and which will hopefully be carried out in the future. They are not complete research proposals, but are rather meant as inspiration to volunteers and students interested in doing research at MCP. Before these studies will be carried out, proper research proposals need to be written by either MCP staff or students, including proper research questions and methodology. For any enquires, please contact [email protected].


Factors influencing coral reef resilience in relation to typhoon damage

All along the eastern and southern coast of Negros Oriental, the coral reefs have been destroyed by typhoon Sendong (international name Washi) in 20111. Typhoons cause a lot of damage to shallow coastal reefs in a very short time. These typhoons are in principle natural disturbances, and as in many other ecosystems, occasional disturbances can keep an ecosystem healthy and diverse. Pressure from anthropogenic threats can lower the resilience of the coral reefs 2,3, causing them to loose the ability to recover from natural disturbances. Indeed personal observation has shown that in a well managed, though small MPA in Dauin, where waters are clear and herbivorous fish abundance is relatively high, the reefs show a a relatively high young hard coral cover. In other sites where there are no MPA’s, enforcement is lacking or there are rivers nearby, algae cover on coral rubble is much higher, suggesting a phase-shift to an algae dominated state1. Recovery of coral species on these locations is lagging behind. There has been discussion though on which factors actually impact the resilience of coral reefs4.

In the long term, we would really like to know which factors determine the recovery of coral reefs from typhoon damage. This will greatly aid vulnerability assessments for management plans, and will aid local authorities to take recovery from typhoon damage into account when managing their coastal resources. Silliman University, and specifically A. Maypa is also interested in this topic, so it could also lead to further cooperation with them.

Since this is quite a big study though, we will split this study into different sub-questions.

  1. First we would like to see if we see any objective evidence for alternative stable states on our coral reefs, and if we see locations with a phase-shift to an algae dominated state. Jouffray et al.5 did an interesting study in Hawai’i where they found clear evidence for alternative stable states. They analysed substrate cover together with many different factors which could explain the phase shift. Initially we would like to gather data on many different sites to show if clustering of sites with similar substrate paramters indeed occurs, and therefore suggest the existence of a stable state. We would like to gather this data both with our permanent point-intercept substrate monitoring program, but also with permanent photo-quadrats that allow higher detail substrate data to be gathered.
  2. By measuring different physical, anthropogenic and biological factors on those same sites, we would like to investigate if we can find any factors that show a significant relation with the occurence of the different alternative stable states, and might therefore be interesting to further investigate the existence of a causal relationship.
  3. We would like to investigate more into depth the influence of herbivorous fish on algae growth and reef recovery. To investigate this, two adjacent sites will be chosen with similar exposure to wind and at equal distances from a local river. One site is going to be part of a re-established no-take zone (NTZ) where all fishing will be prohibited. The other site will not be included in the NTZ. On both sites several quadrats could be placed in pairs at varying depths. Each pair will consist of a quadrat with a cage, denying access to the quadrat by larger herbivorous fish (the species which are influenced most by fisheries), and an unmodified quadrat. In these quadrats, various substrate parameters will be measured, along with the regular monitoring data that is already being gathered on these sites. This data will allow us to analyse the development of the substrate in the presence/absence of larger fish and inside and outside NTZs, and in that way allow is to get an idea of the influence of both protection and overfishing of larger (herbivorous) fish on the recovery of those reefs from typhoon damage and coral-algal phase-shifts.
  1. Bucol AA (2014)   Typhoon-driven Coral-Algal Phase-shifts in Southern Negros Oriental, Philippines; Budidaya Perairan 2(3):8-16.
  2. Mumby PJ, Steneck RS (2010)   The Resilience of Coral Reefs and Its Implications for Reef Management; In: Coral Reefs: An Ecosystem in Transition (Dubinsky Z, Stambler N Eds.) Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht ; ISBN: 978-94-007-0113-7
  3. McClanahan TR, Polunin N, Done T (2002)   Ecological States and the Resilience of Coral Reefs; Conservation Ecology 6(2):18.
  4. Carassou L, Léopold M, Guillemot N, Wantiez L, Kulbicki M (2013)   Does Herbivorous Fish Protection Really Improve Coral Reef Resilience? A Case Study from New Caledonia (South Pacific); PLoS ONE 8(4):e60564.
  5. Jouffray J.-B., Nystrom M., Norstrom A.V, Williams I.D, Wedding L.M, Kittinger J.N, Williams G.J (2014)   Identifying multiple coral reef regimes and their drivers across the Hawaiian archipelago; Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 370:20130268–20130268.

MPA (network) design and effectiveness

The Philippines has over 500 Marine Protected Areas 1, which are usually only a few hectares in size. Some of the MPA’s are created by the government, but the majority of the MPA’s have been set up by local people. A barangay (local neighbourhood) is responsible for the enforcement of the MPA, which explains the small size of the MPA’s because the MPA size is always smaller than the coastal area of the neighborhood itself. Some of the MPA’s only function on paper because there is no enforcement and/or the demarcation lines have been destroyed. Ideally, an MPA is set up because the area has a high productivity and biodiversity or serves a specific ecological function. In the Philippines, the main reason why MPA’s are created is to improve the fish stock and depends on the goodwill of the barangay. Although it is not the same this can still go hand in hand with conservation.

After an MPA is established within a few years usually an increase in species diversity, fish density, biomass or body size is observed. Not only in the MPA itself but also in the surrounding area through dispersal of both fish, larvae and eggs 2.

Ideally an MPA includes several ecologically important areas, like fringing reef, mangroves and sea grass beds since these ecosystems are interdependent. A lot of juvenile fish start their life hiding in the mangroves or in the sea grass beds and only migrate to the reef at a later age. But it should also include participation of the different stakeholders in the design, implementation and evaluation processes of the MPA, create an effective enforcement, include educatioinal activities, etc. One tool to measure this side of MPA effectiveness is the MPA Management Effectiveness Assessment Tool (MPA MEAT tool)3. Both the ecological and managerial side of MPA effectiveness are of interest to us.

MCP would like to have thesis or intern students who can look into the effectiveness of the local MPA’s, the possibilities of a network of MPA’s and write recommendations for further improvement. Currently, Zamboanguita has two enforced MPA ‘s and one MPA which will be reinforced in 2015 by adding new demarcation with buoys, building of a guard house and setting up of local patrolling. The neighbouring municipalities of Dauin and Siaton also have several MPA’s some of which are well enforced.

A thesis or internship student might focus on:

  • The density and body size of ecologically important fish species (herbivores, larger predators) within and outside MPA’s and distance of neighbouring MPA’s.
  • Fish diversity and density of fish species who are dependent on sea grass and or mangroves, in MPA’ s with and without nearby mangrove forests and sea grass beds.
  • The density and body size of commercially interesting fish species, like serranidae, haemulidae and lutjanidae, inside and outside MPA’s, and in relation to distance between MPA’s
  • Effectiveness of big MPA’s, small MPA’s which are part of a network and small MPA’s not part of a network. This topic could be done both as a literature study by analysing results from other studies, and by fieldwork in comparing local MPA’s.
  • For students who are more interested in conservation policy and socio-economics, we would like the MEAT assessment 3 to be done for the local MPA’s, and possibly a protocol written for the periodic repetivion of the assessment, so we can monitor the progression in MPA implementation.
  1. Philippine MPA Database,
  2. Green AL, Maypa AP, Almany GR, Rhodes KL, Weeks R, Abesamis RA, Gleason MG, Mumby PJ, White AT (2014)   Larval dispersal and movement patterns of coral reef fishes, and implications for marine reserve network design; Biological Reviews
  3. NCC PCTI (2011)   Marine Protected Area Management Effectiveness Assessment Tool (MPA MEAT) e-form

Sources of siltation and nutrient pollution

Corals, through the symbiotic zooxanthellae, depend on light for their nutrition. Increased sedimentation limits the light penetration of water, limiting the light available for zooxanthellae. Furthermore sedimentation often elevates nutrient levels in the water, causing algae to grow. Algae compete with the zooxanthellae for light, limiting the available light even more 1. The source of sedimentation on coral reefs are often rivers ending in the sea and wave action, but can also be input by people for (marine) aquaculture. Traditionally around coral reefs, mangrove forests have fulfilled the role of filtering river effluent from nutrients and silt, keeping the waters of the surrounding reefs clear of sediment and low in nutrients.

Along the whole south-east coast of Negros, the Philippines, the coral reefs have been devastated by typhoon Sendong in 2011. In some areas reefs are recovering from the damage, while in other areas new coral growth is coming back at a much lower rate. A particular stretch of coast in the municipality of Zamboanguita (Lutoban), which contains a Marine Protected Area, coral recovery seems to be lagging behind specifically. Personal observation shows sedimentation to be higher than surrounding areas. This could negatively influence the recovery rate from the typhoon damage. This may be explained by the presence of rivers in this area, although past studies have shown high percentages of life hard-coral cover (LHC) in this area and still coral reefs are present, suggesting that sedimentation wasn’t always elevated here. Furthermore surrounding areas also have river mouths close to coral reefs, where sedimentation seems lower. In the area of high sedimentation levels, in the past aquaculture has also been practised in fish cages in a lagoon, where large amounts of food was introduced to the bay.

To aid recovery of the coral reef in the area, it is important to know if indeed sedimentation is higher in this area, and if so, what the source of the sedimentation is. This will allow us to take measures to solve the problem, like mangrove reforestation or other measures to clean up the present silt.

Sedimentation traps 2, measurement of light attenuation 3, and chemical analysis of water samples, amongst other methods, can show the level and source of sedimentation. Furthermore GIS analysis can show the distance of reefs to river mouths and river widths. There are therefore many different methods to analyse this problem.

We are looking for a thesis student or intern who would like to

  • Investigate the sources of siltation and nutrient pollution.
  • Assess the danger the coral reefs are in, given the different levels and sources of silatation at different locations.

We do not have a marine lab on site, but it might be possible to use the marine lab of Siliman University in Dumaguete. Other types of equipment exists to analyse sedimentation source and water clarity. Currently we unfortunately do not have access to this equipment.

  1. Fabricius KE (2010)   Factors Determining the Resilience of Coral Reefs to Eutrophication: A Review and Conceptual Model; In: Coral Reefs: An Ecosystem in Transition (Dubinsky Z, Stambler N Eds.) Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht, The Netherlands ; ISBN: 978-94-007-0113-7
  2. Storlazzi C.D, Field M.E, Bothner M.H (2011)   The use (and misuse) of sediment traps in coral reef environments: theory, observations, and suggested protocols; Coral Reefs 30(1):23-38.
  3. Jones B.H., Cetinic I., Toro-Farmer G., Herzog K., De Leon R., Ragan M.A., Reynolds W.T., Bianculli A. (2008)   The light and motion sensor program: Low cost coral reef monitoring; Proceedings of the 11th International Coral Reef Symposium (16)