Catch of the Week
The Greening of Asia-Pacific Beaches

The Greening of Asia-Pacific Beaches

Catch of the Week

Coastal villages in many parts of the Coral Triangle and beyond in Asia and the Pacific depend for their survival on having attractive beaches for tourists. With rapid coastal developments in recent years, several threats to this attraction are emerging, one of the most offensive of which is the discoloration of the beaches themselves.

The photos below, taken this year, are the famous beach of Boracay Island in the Philippines, which has been suffering from seasonal algal blooms for some years. Pollution from the growing tourism industry is obviously to blame. In February 2015, the waters there contained 50 times the limit of fecal bacteria for safe swimming and health problems are serious.

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In a previous CTKN article, I described an underwater macroalgae (seaweed) bloom along the coast of San Teodoro, near Anilao, Philippines, during February to June 2015. Only the tips of taller corals were visible for months. The area is an important one for dive tourism. Wastewater and septage from resorts was suspected as a cause. Although the visible effects on the beaches were not critical (below left), an image of the intertidal zone during the bloom (May 2015) in front of nearby resorts showed a film of green algae over the intertidal area, a relatively new phenomenon that supports a resort-related cause.

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Marine algae problems are not confined to the Philippines. Quingdao, China, was hit by its annual green tide just before sailing events in the China Olympic Games in 2008 (photo, left below). On the right below is summer swimming in Quingdao in 2011. The cause of the algae is said to be pollution from nearby fish farms.

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Seaweed came ashore on famous Sanya Beach of Hainan, China, on World Ocean Day, 8 June 2010 (below). Nevertheles, ‘experts’ said it was normal! A similar event was recorded on Rizhao beach along China’s Shandong Province in 2013.

cotw-20151222-7On the left below is a beach (Saphan Hill park) in Phuket, a premier resort area of Thailand. Annually in May, green algae coat the beach, caused by ‘dirty water’. Some of Phuket City’s wastewater enters the sea nearby. In May 2014, another Phuket beach (Kamala Beach, below right) had “a growing stink of sewage, and slime and algae covering large areas of the beach, the result of unrestricted dumping of foul waste water into the klong [canal] at the south end of the beach.”

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These photographs are literally ‘snapshots’ of the much larger chronic and widespread problem of inshore pollution. Not only scientific literature, but also tourist sites on the internet, such as Trip Advisor, are telling the same story in visitors’ experiences of beaches spoiled by unsightly and slimy algae or odors from wastewater.

Warnings in the scientific literature, newspapers, and the social media have been made for many years about the fate of such attractive coastal areas if unregulated developments continued, as they have. But as long as the rising levels of nutrients and harmful bacteria and viruses were invisible they were also ignored. Governments have also issued warnings; for example, Boracay beach was declared unfit for swimming as long ago as 1997. However, subsequent to the February 2015 finding by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) that the level of fecal bacteria in the sea was nearly 50 times the safe level for swimming, a May 2015 statement from DENR said that the waters were now fit for swimming and that “it is normal for algae to come out during summer because coastal waters are relatively stationary during the dry season.”

Green, it would seem, is the “new norm” for the color of a beach.

The remedies are as well known as the problems: keep septage and wastewater (and other land runoff) out of the seas. The seas have been receiving nutrients from rivers and runoff since they were formed, but the level of nutrients therein was until now kept in balance, too low for any single species of plant to create regular near shore blooms.

Greening of the beaches is not the only manifestation of the excess nutrients entering the sea. Red is becoming the norm for the color of inshore seawater in the form of red tides. Red tide is the name given to surface blooms of, usually single-celled, algae (as opposed to the filamentous algae found on beaches) in response to the availability of excess nutrients. In the Philippines, for example, there was no record of red tide until 1983, when there were a number of fatalities from eating shellfish contaminated by the red tide organisms in Manila Bay.

The second occurrence was 4 years later, when it was also found further north as well, and since then red tides have become an seasonal appearance throughout much of the country, necessitating bans on shellfish harvesting and big economic losses. It is hard not to see a relationship between the increase in red tides and the rising level of coastal development, along with coastal population increases.

Economic costs of polluted beaches are hard to find. However, when the Philippines DENR first stated that Boracay’s waters were polluted in 1997, tourist arrivals there that year dropped by 7.6%, from 163,727 in 1996 to 151,264, and fell further in 1998 by another 10% to 135,944.

Nevertheless, arrivals to Boracay increased steadily since then to 1,363,601 foreign (45%) and domestic (55%) tourists in 2013—ten times more than in 1998. Boracay tourism receipts in 2013 totaled P25 billion (about US$600 million). The stakes are therefore high for Boracay and similar beaches. Should there be more adverse news on Boracay, declines in arrivals similar to those in the late 1990s would now mean an annual loss of more than $100 million.

The direct contribution of all travel and tourism to the Philippine economy is 4.2% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). In Thailand, where beaches are also prominent tourist destinations, estimates of tourism’s direct contribution are even higher, ranging between 9% and 16% of GDP in 2014, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

With all these aesthetic, economic and health reasons to maintain the beauty of beaches, why then are they not kept scrupulously and proudly clean? The answer lies mainly in the opportunism of private business to make quick profits in the short term and the failure of government to put into practice long-term strategies to prevent businesses from harming the goods they promote.
Green beaches can become white again.

The processes are not irreversible. Commitment and transparent, fully implemented regulations are all it needs.

(Article written by: Jay Maclean, Consultant, ADB)

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