BATANGAS CITY - An odd-looking sea creature locally christened the "bubble shark" is breathing new life into a campaign to preserve a vital marine corridor straddling five provinces in the Southern Tagalog region.
Discovered only last year by marine biologists, the bubble shark, also described as an "inflatable shark" and believed to be a new species of swell shark, has been observed in waters off Batangas and Mindoro island.
It is so named because of its defence mechanism to puff up to twice its size in the face of danger.
For environmental officials, the discovery of the weird shark adds new meaning to efforts to save the Verde Island Passage Marine Corridor (VIPMC), a bustling sea-lane renowned for having some of the highest concentrations of shore-fish and underwater life in the world.
"It's a wonderful sign," said Lynette Laroya, assistant director of the environment department's Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau.
"It's a good indication that we have good diversity … And it shows that perhaps there are a lot of other species that have not been discovered out there," she said in an interview on the sidelines of the VIPMC Summit held in this city on Sept. 27 and 28.
Center of marine diversity
Environment Secretary Ramon Paje, in a message read on his behalf by Undersecretary Analiza Teh, gave special mention to bubble sharks in his remarks, saying "they have been recorded thriving in the Verde Island Passage."
Laroya said the discovery of the bubble shark was especially important in light of the acknowledgment by a group of international marine scientists in 2006 that the Philippines was the "centre of the centre of marine diversity."
The attention given to a species that might be new to science highlighted the need to protect the habitat where it had been found, she said.
"The whole world is watching this. That means we have to protect our marine habitats and we have to prioritize the VIPMC," Laroya said.
The VIPMC is both a bustling sea-lane for ships and vessels, and a pathway for migratory wildlife such as dolphin and tuna.
Although still under the process of verification, the presence of the bubble shark was discovered last year by a group of researchers who found a treasure trove of previously unknown terrestrial and marine wildlife during the 2011 Philippine Wildlife Expedition spearheaded by the California Academy of the Sciences.
The 42-day expedition by 43 international and local scientists yielded previously undocumented wildlife species, both in land and water, and even along the shorelines, the first attempt to study simultaneously marine and terrestrial habitats in the Philippines.
Beginning April 26, 2011, it encompassed waters in Lake Taal, Anilao and the Verde Island Passage in Batangas, and mountains in Makiling in Laguna, Banahaw in Quezon, Malarayat in Batangas and Isarog in Bicol.
According to an article on the science news website Livescience.com, one of the discoveries made by the researchers was a possible new species of swell shark, "a shark that pumps water into its stomach to puff up."
Unlike its relatives in other seas, however, the shark found in the VIPMC "possesses a very distinctive camouflaged colour pattern," the report said.
Other swell sharks feature dark round spots, but the species found in the Philippines, based on pictures, have white or lighter spots instead.
"But very little is known yet about this species, as to whether it is really a new species, how large the population is, and whether it is endemic to us or just migrating," Laroya said.
The term "bubble shark" also appears to have been coined locally, as foreign reports identify the species either as swell shark or inflatable shark.
Laroya said environmental groups such as Conservation International had already known of the bubble shark for some time, but it only hit headlines when the scientists reported their findings to the media.
The publicity generated by a possible new species can amply benefit marine habitats, according to researcher Vera Horigue, a Ph.D. student in conservation planning at James Cook University in Australia.
"That's what we call flagship species. [It's important] because when you sell conservation to people, especially people who are not really interested or who do not really care, they need something else, like, why is it important?" she told the Inquirer.
"It's really helpful to get people to become interested, because you can show just how special the place is by the uniqueness of the species found in it," said Horigue, who is studying the management plans of certain marine protected areas in the Philippines, including those covering the VIPMC.
"It promotes the area; thus, funds pour in," she said.
Another unintended benefit is that any campaign to save a particular species will have an impact on lesser-known species that are part of the ecosystem. In the case of marine species, she said, the best way of conserving is to ensure that the habitat is left undisturbed through the skillful management of marine protected areas.
Horigue said her laboratory mates working on dugong and turtles found that they could apply their conservation strategy toward improving the condition of sea grass beds, the main food sources of dugong and turtles, and which the community would otherwise not care about.
The VIPMC covers parts of the coastal waters of Batangas, Oriental Mindoro, Occidental Mindoro, Marinduque and Romblon. It is said to have the largest concentration of marine life in the world, with more than 1,700 marine species recorded within a 10-square-kilometer area in the habitat.
It is both a highly productive fishing ground for traditional and commercial fishers and a development area for coastal and marine tourism, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
But the saltwater highway is threatened by overfishing, pollution and climate change. In 2009, a task force on the Verde Island Passage, as part of government efforts to protect and preserve the marine habitat, sought to guide provincial leaders in formulating and designing management plans for the VIPMC.
It was agreed that the plan would be revisited after three years, which was why the DENR, along with its partner organisations and agencies, held the VIPMC Summit at the Pontefino Hotel and Residences in this city.
More than a hundred policy-makers from the five provinces with stakes in the marine corridor attended the summit where they discussed the challenges, the best practices and the most effective management plans for the conservation project.