356,000 reasons why you should visit Mangrove

Sunlight Eco-Tourism Resort Culion has opened a casual dining restaurant so named to drive awareness to this unique ecosystem that’s among the richest yet most undervalued on the planet

IN THE NAME OF MANGROVES SETIR COO Ryna C. Brito (center) at the Mangrove opening ceremony with SETIR CEO Ricardo L. Brito (third from left), head chef John Kyle Ureta (second from left), and Sunlight Air marketing managers, John Christopher Bonifacio and Shalini Cada

When Sunlight Eco-Tourism Resort (SETIR) in Culion, northern Palawan opened Mangrove, a casual dining pavilion that juts out over Busuanga Bay, I saw it as grand gesture. And I sure hope it would be more than tokenism.

Palawan is home to 58,400 hectares of mangrove forests. In fact, since 1981, by virtue of Presidential Proclamation 2152, signed by then President Ferdinand Marcos Sr., the entire province has been declared a Mangrove Swamp Forest Reserve. This public policy is no more important than now that experts have agreed that a natural climate solution, such as the protection, restoration, and sustainable management of terrestrial and coastal ecosystems like mangroves, can play a key role so far largely untapped in achieving the overambitious goals of the Paris Agreement of keeping the global temperature rise below two degrees by 2030.

Mangroves keep marine life in the Calamianes Islands rich, teeming with commercially valuable fish like lapu-lapu, snappers, Spanish mackerels, blue and gold fusiliers, breams, as well as squid, shrimps, crabs, shellfish, and sea cucumbers.

Lamayo and sinangag

Behind the setup of Mangrove is SETIR’s intention, as explained by its COO, Ryna C. Brito, and its head chef, John Kyle Ureta, to celebrate its namesake, not only in Palawan, but around the Philippines as a food source. Combining casual Filipino dining and education, the menu is chockfull of popular dishes from regions known for mangrove swamps and forests, accompanied by tidbits about how to respect these unique ecosystems. Some of the interesting dishes are Sulu’s delectable piyassak, Zamboanga’s healthy and refreshing ensaladang chamba, and Tawi-Tawi’s tiulah-itum.  On opening day, Coron aquatic biologist Rechie Cabales was also invited to speak about the benefits of mangroves in day-to-day life as part of the program, which included cultural performances such as a live OPM concert and traditional dances like the tinikling.

So while enjoying my teasing the meat out of my chupa kulo, a Zamboanga dish of snails in squash and coconut milk, I was also chewing on the many, many reasons we should care for our mangroves and these are only four of them.

Mangroves are rich source of life.

Do you know that the goliath grouper, once overexploited, now critically endangered, would stay in its mangrove nursery until it reaches a meter in length? For most of the species, that takes up to six years. Science has long established a direct link between the offshore abundance of adult groupers and the health of mangroves in surrounding coasts.

SALT-TOLERANT TREES The mangroves of Culion

I guess you can say the same of a diversity of wildlife that exists in mangroves, such as a large variety of fish, crab, shrimp, and mollusk species. Many birds, some driven from inland forests, also nest, roost, and feed in mangrove swamps, such as kingfishers, including species common in the Philippines, which thrive on the fish, crustaceans, and small frogs abundant in these ecosystems that are among the richest yet most undervalued on the planet.

Mangroves are a hotspot for diversity.

While in Palawan, decades before Travel & Leisure named it “The Most Beautiful Island in the World,” I woke up early and canoed to a mangrove swamp, reaching it just as the sun rose and, stirred by my arrival, the birds took off from the treetops in a flutter of what seemed like a million wings. 

We are losing mangrove forests at an average rate of 0.18 percent per year around the world

Aside from kingfishers Asian glossy starlings, chest munias, olive-backed sunbirds, black napped orioles, white-breasted woodswallows, Eurasian sparrows, the Philippine bulbul, pied fantails, and more keep our mangroves abuzz. 

Not only are these winged creatures vital in the survival of mangroves, where they serve both as predators and prey to maintain balance among the organisms, as seed dispersers, and as pollinators, they’re also there because mangroves are an ideal feeding and foraging ground, teeming with sea stars, sponges, oysters, barnacles, crabs, and anemones clinging on the intertwining aerial and horizontal roots.

Grilled tiger prawns

That’s also why fireflies, butterflies, ants, the Asian honey bee, and the golden silk spider are there. So are monkeys, like the proboscis monkey of Borneo, and bats, as well as caimans and crocodiles in other places like Florida. In the mangroves of the Ganges Delta in the Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh, so is the endangered Royal Bengal tiger.

Mangroves are a testament of nature’s resilience.

Mangroves are survivors. These woody trees and shrubs, about 80 different species of them, survive along sheltered coastlines within the tropic or subtropic latitudes, near the equator, inhospitable and uninhabitable to most plants, where their roots, submerged in water, stand firm against the ebb and flow of the tides in salty, oxygen-poor soil.

These rich habitats are master adaptors. Innate to them, according to the Smithsonian, “are a series of impressive adaptations—including a filtration system that keeps out much of the salt and a complex root system that holds the mangrove upright in the shifting sediments where land and water meet.”

FILIPINO FARE Local dishes and Palawan specialties on offer at Mangrove

But enough of resilience being used the way we use resilience to appease ourselves from our endless toils and troubles, particularly from First World-induced climate disasters! Mangrove forests too are in danger, vanishing faster than tropical rainforests, at a rate of 0.18 percent or, according to the Smithsonian, between 2001 and 2012, at roughly the rate of 91 to 271 square kilometers per year.

Mangroves need us, but we need mangroves more.

And not only because they are the nurseries for the world’s seafood supplies, supplying  a variety of seafood, such as  crabs, shellfish, oysters, snails, octopus, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and fish, but also fruits and other food items and alcohol, medicines, tannin, timber, and housing materials, at capacities large enough to benefit millions of people, but also because they help address coastal pollution, they serve as shoreline protection against storms, tsunamis, erosion, and beach abrasion, and they are a source of livelihood for about 200 million people worldwide. What’s more, as reported by the World Bank, in Indonesia alone, mangroves “help mitigate the impact of climate change as they store a significant amount of carbon—3.1 billion tons—equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions produced by approximately 2.5 billion vehicles driven for one year.”

Ginataang lato

But mangroves also need us. Approximately 75 percent of the world’s mangroves are found in just 15 countries, according to Endangered Species International, and only eight percent are protected under the existing protected areas.

Asia is a rock star in mangroves, with about 42 percent of the world’s mangroves found in it. Kudos to Indonesia, which houses 3.5 million hectares, 23 percent of the world’s total! The Philippines only has 356,000 hectares or less, but “out of the world’s more than 70 salt-tolerant mangrove species, around 46 species exist in the Philippines,” so Maritime Review reported in a study. Although our mangroves have of late been plagued by a deforestation rate per decade of 0.5 percent, the good news is the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), as part of the National Greening Program, is planting 50,000 hectares of swamps, especially in typhoon-prone areas across the Philippines, and spending ₱50,000 per hectare on the project. It takes small steps to make a big leap, especially as scientists are finding more and more that, if we are to meet our commitments in the Climate Change Agreement, we will need all the help of mangroves.