THE country's mangroves are fast disappearing. In 1981, there were an estimated 450,000 hectares of mangrove areas in the country. Since then, there has been a decreasing trend from 375,000 hectares in 1950 to about 120,000 hectares in 1995.

At that time, one environmentalist wrote: "All over the country, whatever coastal province you visit, you see the same plight -- desolate stretches of shoreline completely stripped of mangrove cover and now totally exposed to the pounding of the ocean’s waves."

To prevent further losses of mangroves, lawmakers enacted Republic Act 8550 otherwise known as Philippine Fisheries Code of 1988 whose section 94 stated that the conversion of mangroves into fishponds or any other purpose is prohibited.

Although a World Bank report released in 2005 stated that mangrove cover in the country was "now relatively stable" -- particularly those around Bohol and Siquijor islands – Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III said that mangroves are still in peril.

"Notwithstanding, our mangroves are disappearing due to unabated deforestation in some parts of the country, poor management practices and sea level rise as a result of climate change," informs Dr. Guerrero, former director of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development. The current rate of mangrove deforestation ranges from 2,000 to 3,000 hectares per year.

Mangroves are very important to marine life, Dr. Guerrero points out. They serve as sanctuaries and feeding grounds for fish that nibble on detritus (fallen and decaying leaves) trapped in the vegetation, and on the bark and leaves of living trees.

The destruction of mangroves is detrimental to those living near the coastal areas. "Research in some areas of the world, as well as in this country, show that where mangroves have been protected, yields of fish have been high; where they have been destroyed, yields have been low," reminds Dr. Angel C. Alcala, former head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

There is good news, though. In Tinambac, Camarines Sur, it has been reported that mangrove reforestation has improved the local fish catch. The new mangrove forest brought back red snapper fish species that had previously disappeared due to lack of habitat.

In Pangangan Island off Calape, Bohol, people have found in mangroves a natural ally to protect their island's only road link to the mainland from typhoon damage. The four-kilometer long causeway is protected by mangroves planted in recent decades by local school children.

The Philippines is not the only country experiencing mangrove loss. In fact, more than one in six mangrove species worldwide are in danger of extinction. Although coastal development is the primary culprit, other factors like climate change, logging and agriculture have contributed to their disappearance.

According to the first-ever global assessment on the conservation status of mangroves for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 11 out of 70 mangrove species (16 per cent) which were assessed will be placed on the red list of the World Conservation Union.

Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Central America, where as many as 40 per cent of mangrove species are considered threatened, are particularly affected.

"Mangroves form one of the most important tropical habitats that support many species, and their loss can affect marine and terrestrial biodiversity much more widely," pointed out Beth Polidoro, principal author of the study.

Mangrove forests grow where saltwater meets the shore in tropical and subtropical regions, thus serving as an interface between terrestrial, fresh-water and marine ecosystems. These forests provide at least US$1.6 billion each year in ecosystem services.

"The loss of mangroves will have devastating economic and environmental consequences," says Greg Stone, Senior Vice President of Marine Programs at the Washington-based Conservation International. "These ecosystems are not only a vital component in efforts to fight climate change, but they also protect some of the world's most vulnerable people from extreme weather and provide them with a source of food and income."