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Conservation Group: Starfish Invasion Threatening Philippines' Coral Reefs; 'Far From Normal'

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MANILA, The Philippines -- Coral-eating starfish have infested several coastal areas in the Philippines, threatening to devastate entire sections of reefs in weeks, a conservation group warned yesterday.

The World Wide Fund for Nature reported outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish in at least seven coastal areas. One starfish can consume 6 sq. m. of healthy coral reef in a year.

Outbreaks of the starfish, also known as Ancathaster planci, are detected every summer—from March to May—when local ocean temperatures and nutrient levels increase, giving rise to algal blooms.

“Normally, reefs should be left alone to deal with unusual occurrences such as this,” the group said in a statement. “However, the situation facing Philippine reefs is far from normal.”

The group said major predators that should, under normal conditions, keep crown-of-thorns starfish in check were steadily declining due to illegal collection for food and the aquarium trade.

A recent World Bank study revealed that barely 1 percent of the Philippines’ 25,000 sq. m. of coral reefs remain pristine and more than 50 percent are unhealthy.

World Wide Fund advised people involved in cleaning up crown-of-thorns starfish not to touch them. Their long spines can sting and inflict severe swelling, pain and nausea that can last for hours or days.

Tongs should be used to gently pry the starfish from the coral head or rock face. The starfish should be burned in an open space; cutting them up could allow them to regenerate, it said.

Ultimately, the best response is to keep the reef healthy, stop over-fishing, manage sewage and agricultural runoffs, and promote balanced reef biodiversity, the group added.

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