Coral Reef Conservation in Balabac Island | WWF

Coral Reef Conservation in Balabac Island

Geographical location:

Asia/Pacific > Southeast Asia > Philippines

Balabac lighthouse. Philippines.
© WWF Philippines


The Tiffany & Co. Foundation’s generous support to WWF and our coalition of partners’ work to develop a multiple-use protected area that advances conservation and sustainable economic development in the municipality of Balabac in the Philippines enabled major marine conservation protections within the 489,652 ha of the Balabac marine protected area (MPA). A highlight from this project was the major declaration by the Molbog tribal council to set aside 37,000 ha of traditional waters for strict protection or marine reserves, substantially increasing the amount of area that will be able to recover from unsustainable fishing and other human-caused degradation. When added to the 28,000 ha of strictly protected areas in the Bugsuk-Pandanan area where the Jewelmer pearl farm is located, this project has yielded a total of 65,000 ha of formally protected marine resources.


Balabac was identified as a priority area in the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion (SSME) conservation plan because of its high marine biodiversity and it being a marine corridor between the Sulu Sea and South China Sea. It is also a socio-economic corridor of the Philippines and Malaysia.

Balabac is located in the Southwestern tip of Palawan, with about 63,757 ha of land area and 489,562 ha of water area. It is an archipelagic municipality representing a full range of habitat types - expansive upland and mangrove forests, fringing and barrier reefs, seagrass and algal beds, beaches, foreshore and deep seas serving as migration path of pelagic fishes. Its diverse wildlife includes endangered and vulnerable species like the dugong, green sea turtle, estuarine crocodile, wild boar and mouse deer. It is a major supplier of live reef food fish to Malaysia. This makes Balabac an area of high conservation value for maintaining ecological services and functions that benefit humans.

Other than the biogeographic parameters, it has an interesting mix of people with a strong socio-cultural heritage. From being a Christian-dominated community till the early 80s, Muslims. coming in waves from Tawi-tawi, turned it into a Muslim-dominated community. There are indigenous people known as the Molbog and Palaw’an which add flavor to life in Balabac.

The economic situation in the area is strongly driven by its trade practices. It used to be a free port in the 60s until it was closed in 1970 when the country was placed under martial rule. Nevertheless, the trade between merchants in the area with that of Kudat, Malaysia persisted. The difference is that no regulation is observed, except the law of supply and demand.

The growing demand for fishery and forestry products and destructive activities such as cyanide fishing and mangrove tan barking is taking its toll on the habitats and the lives of the local inhabitants.

The municipal government, in realizing this, declared the entire municipal waters a marine protected area under municipal ordinance in March 2005.


1. Develop a multiple-use protected area in Balabac that advances conservation and sustainable development.

2. Design a model for other areas of the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion (SSME) that are important to coral conservation and pearl farming.


The management plan developed for this marine protected area adopts an ecosystem-based integration of developmental and conservation strategies using as its legal and management framework the existing and relevant ecoregional, national and provincial instruments.

For this plan to be implemented, the municipal government needs support to establish credibility through a track record of successes and a genuine sense of accountability. WWF will assist the municipal government in protected area planning and livelihood creation.


- The village governments proposed 37,000 ha of strict protection zone (increasing protection to 13% of the Balabac MPA waters).

- Conducted 18 participatory coastal resource assessments to establish a baseline for launching conservation efforts in the region.

- Organized and trained 9 Barangay Fishery and Aquatic Resources Management Councils (BFARMCs) to advise the municipal fisheries council and enforce the protected area status.

- Developed a 5-year management plan and associated governance bodies and programme areas to facilitate MPA management over the long term.

- Designed and implemented a volunteer reef monitoring programme that has already trained 16 fishermen, teachers and students to monitor the health of the reef and identify additional areas of the MPA for strict protection.

- Established and trained a managing board of directors to guide a newly initiated micro-finance project, which will provide financial resources for sustainable development and conservation activities throughout the region.

- Brought together representatives from major universities in Malaysia to discuss steps for expanding the project on a regional level and providing key guidance on specific marine conservation projects.

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