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When President Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines signed an executive order Nov. 8 to strengthen environmental protections throughout her archipelago nation, she was endorsing the scientific research of Old Dominion University marine biologist Kent Carpenter.

Carpenter's Peace Corps stint in the Philippines in the 1970s launched a fascination that explains how a scientist from Virginia could come to influence marine-life conservation in a time zone 13 hours away.

His nearly 30 years of research in and around the Philippines resulted two years ago in an internationally publicized finding-the central part of the nation is the "center of the center" for world marine shore fish biodiversity, and the peak in this marine biodiversity is found in the Verde Island Passage.

A triangular region extending also to Malaysia and Indonesia has long been called the Earth's "center" of marine biodiversity. But within that triangle, the portion of the Philippine archipelago between the islands of Luzon and Mindanao is packed with more species than any other sub-section, according to Carpenter's research.

About two-thirds of the known marine species of the Pacific can be found in these coastal waters of the Philippines.

Carpenter, who coordinates global marine species assessment for the World Conservation Union, worked with Victor Springer of the Smithsonian Institution and in conjunction with the Conservation International organization in producing the "center of center" biodiversity analysis.

With his scholarly writing, and by giving numerous media interviews in the Philippines, the ODU professor of biological sciences has promoted a political response to his research findings. He stressed not only the valuable biodiversity in Philippine waters, but also other research showing that this marine habitat is the most threatened in the world.

The use of poisons and dynamite by native fishermen, pollution from ships and pollution from land use practices are among the threats to the fish, shrimp, crabs, seaweeds, corals, sea turtles and sea snakes that Carpenter is trying to protect. Many of the threats exist because of poor enforcement of environmental regulations already in place, he told the Philippine news media.

At a news conference in Manilla on Oct. 13, Carpenter got a big break. His presentation about protecting the wealth of biodiversity in the Philippines resulted in major stories in two of the nation's largest Sunday newspapers. Back in the United States later in October, Carpenter got the word that President Arroyo had read the newspaper articles and was moved to action. She wanted to convene-as soon as possible-a biodiversity conference.

Carpenter returned to the Philippines for the Nov. 8 conference, sat at the head table with Arroyo, and gave what he has come to be described as "my 'center of the center' talk."

Back again on the ODU campus on Nov. 13, Carpenter described his meeting with Arroyo and how pleased he was by her action. Before she signed the executive order, he said, she shook his hand and said, "I am so pleased you are paying attention to our country. Thank you very much."

Arroyo's executive order is designed to beef up environmental regulation enforcement by the nation's coast guard and by agents of all levels of government, including local and provincial officials. She also declared the Verde Island Passage and the nearby island of Mindoro as a marine sanctuary and national protected area.

The president was quoted in the Philippine media as saying: "We can only continue to be tops in terrestrial and marine wealth if we care for our resources, use them prudently and alleviate the poverty that forces people to exploit them mindlessly. We aim for the day when no Filipino will have to burn the forest or poison the water to earn his keep or feed his family. The challenge to all of us is how to keep the balance so that we protect our biodiversity and at the same time gain from it, and in the process attain sustainable development."

Carpenter told the conference that the central Philippine region "can be considered the marine counterpart to the Amazon River Basin. It is therefore very timely that President Arroyo is taking this action, and that organizations such as Conservation International and their partners focus effort to preserve the world's most unique concentration of marine biodiversity."

Other Conservation International researchers recently have set forth evidence that an area near Papua, New Guinea, also has claim to being the "center of the center" of biodiversity. Carpenter acknowledges that other localized marine areas will have remarkable peaks in diversity but that on a regional basis, the central Philippines has more species per unit area than any other place on earth. This finding has subsequently been verified by independent studies.

Carpenter's research effort in the Philippines has involved dozens of ODU students over the years and utilized the molecular systematics laboratory he has set up on the campus. "Every biologist is a conservationist at heart and we all want to do our part to preserve biodiversity," Carpenter said. "To see my scientific research being translated into actual national conservation action is one of the most satisfying accomplishments of my career."

This article was posted on: November 15, 2006

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