Global Insular

Conservation Society

Preserving species and habitat through

education, conservation and research

GICS Spotlight:

Biri Initiative - Restoring Damaged Reefs and More


In 2006, Scotsman Richard Ewen, a long-time resident of the Philippines, opened a resort on Biri Island in Northern Samar. Tourists had long been drawn to the island by its extraordinary rock formations, but they were also beginning to discover the high quality of diving to be had over Biri’s coral reefs. It soon became apparent, however, that large areas of reef had been devastated by illegal fishing methods, and that immediate action was needed both to save the reefs and ensure a future for local fishermen.

To address this urgent need, in March 2012 Richard registered Biri Initiative Org. as a non-profit organisation with the Securities & Exchange Commission (#CN201204546).

Since then, Biri Initiative’s Board have been busy introducing ourselves to local stakeholders, explaining our programs and seeking their input, familiarising ourselves with regulations and procedures (at both local and central government levels), and building strategic ties with experts with the knowledge and technology we need to achieve our goals.

In this regard, Biri Initiative has formed a key partnership with the developers of “reefbuds”, a major advance in artificial reef technology that will form a cornerstone of our work. After gaining hands-on experience in reefbud production and deployment elsewhere in the Philippines, Biri Initiative will deploy the first reefbuds off Biri in the autumn of 2013. This represents a major vote of confidence in us by local stakeholders, and fills us with confidence that our efforts will be both well-received and effective in helping ensure a sustainable future for Biri.

Reefbuds: Innovation in Coral Reef Regeneration

The cornerstone of reef-regeneration efforts in Biri is the “reefbud”, a revolutionary advance in artificial reef technology. These will be deployed at strategic locations within Biri’s Marine Protected Areas, and will also be showcased in our innovative Marine Park, a free educational facility for all.

A 501(C)3 Non Profit Organization

Seeding of Giant Clams

Giant clams, or Tridacninae, are a subfamily of saltwater bi-valve molluscs. The largest, sometimes called the true giant clam (Tridacna gigas), may measure 1.2 m across and weigh 250 kg, and live for a century.

Giant clams benefit any coral reef as they are natural biological filters that help maintain an optimum nutrient balance in the water. However, they all but vanished from the Philippines due to overharvesting for food, shells and the aquarium trade.

Bolinao Marine Laboratory of the Marine Science Institute operates the Philippines’ largest giant clam nursery, and provides seed stock for repopulation efforts. With its help, Biri Initiative plans to seed the reef around Biri with juveniles of indigenous species.

This is both challenging and costly, however. Clams are bred and raised in nurseries on land until they are two years old and 20 cm across, at which time they are large enough to be placed in the ocean. They are then carefully packaged and sent by air freight to their final destination. But even then, they must spend the next few years in steel cages to protect them from predators.

Marine Protected Areas

The first marine protected areas (MPAs) were established in the Philippines in 1974, and today there are 562. Of these, 557 are coral reef MPAs aimed at enhancing fish yields and other economic uses, while at the same time protecting reef habitats and biodiversity.

Three of these are off Biri. The Biri Municipality Marine Reserve covers 549 hectares (not including the Sanctuaries within it), in which fishing is restricted. Within the Reserve are the Magnatuka Rock Fish Sanctuary and the Pio del Pilar Fish Sanctuary.

Reefbuds are a new technology developed in the Philippines by the late Austrian-German environmental geoscientist Dr. Harald Kremnitz and Filipino partner Benjamin Tayag Jr.

In 2006, they won a Country Development Marketplace grant from the World Bank to finance a pilot program called the “REEForestation Using Recycled Waste Materials” project, placing reefbuds offshore from selected coastal towns.

Reefbuds are superficially similar to an established artificial reef technology made of concrete known as a “reefball”. But on closer inspection, they are quite different. Reefbuds combine environment-friendly inorganic materials (including beach sand, cement and pebbles), and organic materials from a variety of possible sources. This special mix is formed into structures with the following characteristics:

POROSITY: A reefbud is like a sponge, absorbing sea water together with the marine life suspended in it, such as spores, plankton and algae. Even in strong currents, marine life can latch onto or take root in the reefbud as the currents drive them into its porous cavities.

CALCIFICATION: The blend of materials in a reefbud reacts with sea water and triggers a calcification process much like the natural calcification processes that create coral reefs, crab shells, turtle shells, etc.

STABILITY: Because reefbuds are massive structures (typically weighing from 400 to 650kg) that become even heavier as they absorb sea water and marine life, they do not move even in strong currents during storms. Moreover, their hydrodynamic form allows currents to flow around them instead of pushing on them. This stability allows reefbuds to become permanent homes and spawning grounds for marine life.

Inside the Sanctuaries, all fishing is prohibited. They contain extensive reefs, but this meant they were also favourite sites for illegal fishing methods that inflicted great damage.

The Biri government, which has management authority for the MPAs, has permitted us to engage in activities conducive to their recovery. These include the deployment of reefbuds, clean-ups of crown-of-thorns, and monitoring.

Crown-of-Thorns Starfish

Crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) are endemic to the coral reefs of the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Pacific. Because of their voracious appetite for live hard coral, they have destroyed large areas of reef, notably Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

They eat most types of coral, but prefer the branching tubular types of the genus Acropora, such as table, elkhorn and staghorn coral. Acropora corals are one of the major builders of the calcium carbonate substructure that supports the thin living skin of a reef.

REEFBUD PRODUCTION: At left, a finished reefbud dries in the sun. At right, a fresh mold awaits its turn.

EASILY AVAILABLE RAW MATERIALS: The main raw materials of reefbuds are beach sand and cement, which account for 75% by volume. The remaining 25% of the mix is biomass. In developing reefbuds, priority was given to assuring these materials would be available in close proximity to the locations where the reefbuds would be deployed. Particularly noteworthy is that reefbuds are made using sea water and beach sand, generally considered totally unsuited to concrete structures. The biomass can contain a range of ingredients available in coastal communities in the tropics, such as coconut husks or shredded rice stalks.

COLONISATION SPEED: The most remarkable feature of reefbuds is the speed at which they fulfill their purpose. Algae, small fish, anemones and shellfish are found aplenty on reefbuds as soon as eight weeks after deployment even in a marine-dead area (only sand or mud), and there is currently no faster way to revitalise a severely damaged coral reef.

At normal densities (<10 per hectare), crown-of-thorns can actually benefit biodiversity, feeding on fast-growing corals and thereby allowing slower-growing corals to thrive. But they are prone to infestations when populations rise to >30 per hectare, and then they are a threat. After an infestation, it may take a decade or more for the coral cover to return to its original level.

Curiously though, infestations were not observed until the 1960s. One theory to explain this is overharvesting of one of the few predators of adult crown-of-thorns, the Triton’s trumpet snail, for sale as souvenirs. Another is that infestations are caused by agricultural fertilisers being flushed into the sea. This causes phytoplankton to bloom, which in turn causes zooplankton to bloom, providing more food for crown-of-thorns larvae.

Whatever the case, parts of the reef around Biri now have crown-of-thorns densities far in excess of 30 per hectare, making their control a high priority for Biri Initiative.

Working with divers and fishermen, Biri Initiative organises regular clean-ups of crown-of-thorns, but the task is huge. In 2013, Ralph Adams (see photo) and five divers collected 1,500 in just four hours, indicating the seriousness of the infestation.

Holy Crosses

Holy crosses and statues of Jesus have been deployed in many coastal waters of the Philippines as effective deterrents against dynamite blasting, the use of cyanide, and other illegal fishing methods.

After first being blessed by a priest, statues are typically placed on promontories overlooking the ocean. But crosses planted on the seabed have the added bonus that they also attract coral growth to their surface.

Biri Initiative aims to deploy holy crosses selectively in key locations damaged by illegal fishing to deter further destruction and let nature recover, helped by the power of faith.

The first deployment of reefbuds took place in ANILAO, BATANGAS in January 2007, with a plan to deploy 300 in total. However, due to delays caused by local authorities, full-scale implementation of the project was moved to ROSARIO, CAVITE.

Coastal waters off Rosario had long been considered “marine dead”. On the plus side, it had a more developed people’s organisation than Anilao, and a more dynamic local government, and most importantly, the Cavite Export Processing Zone, located in Rosario, was highly supportive of the project.

Between 2007 and Dec. 31, 2012, no fewer than 1,165 reefbuds were deployed off Rosario. By all accounts, these have been so effective, the local fishing industry has been totally rejuvenated.

Before the arrival of reefbuds off Rosario, local fishermen travelled all the way to Bataan and Batangas provinces to fish. Now the situation has been reversed, with fishermen from other provinces wanting to fish in Rosario. The number of boats registered to fish in Rosario waters grew from 1,200 in 2007 to over 3,500 in 2012.

Because of their success in Rosario, reefbuds were chosen for the reef rehabilitation of the country’s top tourist destination, BORACAY ISLAND.

In mid-2012, Boracay launched a P60 million rehabilitation project after finding that over 90% of its corals were dead. The project is called “Code Blue,” a hospital emergency code for a patient requiring immediate medical attention. Funded by the Loren Legarda Foundation, the project has placed 5,000 reefbuds along a 2-km stretch of Boracay’s celebrated white sand beach.

In early 2013, deployment of reefbuds also began at the popular tourist resort of Sabang Beach in PUERTO GALERA, MINDORO.

And in autumn 2013, the first reefbuds will be deployed by Biri Initiative off BIRI ISLAND.