TEAM BLOG : Jose Ingles - How Tubbataha changed my perception of what a truly protected reef ecosystem should look like
Calm seas, dark amber sunsets, clear deep waters isolating large swaths of aquamarine sea patches. This is where I was last week; this is what I have dreamed of since I started diving in 1979.
I was in Tubbataha National Heritage Site in Palawan, Philippines, finally completing three of the greatest dive sites in the Coral Triangle under effective protection, which also include Bunaken National Park in North Sulawesi, Indonesia and Sipadan in Semporna, Malaysia.
This Tubbataha diving experience provided me a glimpse of what coral reefs look like in the absence of fishing—a diversity of life with 600 species of different reef fish, over 400 species of hard corals, and a full range of fish sizes.
This is what makes this place different. In this underwater garden I call Eden, threatened, vulnerable, and endangered species simply do not exist as turtles, groupers, napoleon wrasses, sharks, and yes, sea birds of all forms and sizes are just as common as a clown fish in a sea anemone.
What pristine looks likeWhen I first started diving in 1979, I used to go to Puerto Galera, which was then the premier diving destination in the Philippines. At that time, large swaths of the fringing reefs were maintained as a field laboratory by the zoology department of the University of the Philippines.
Only a handful of spear fishermen and a few paddle-driven boats were there to exploit the reefs. They simply collected their favorite species such as lobsters, large snappers, groupers, and large rabbitfish. Using pots, small and undesired species (sometimes even large ones) were thrown back to the sea alive. In those days, people had less preference for most reef fish because of their rather fishy odor.
During my lecturing days at the university some 15 years ago, I always mentioned to my students what a pristine coral reef ecosystem should look like, referencing Puerto Galera and my own experiences there. Back then, numerous large fish were still present, gillnets were unknown, and blast fishing was unheard of.
Shifting baselinesFast forward to a week before this Tubbataha trip, I was talking to a very young diving enthusiast with only two years diving experience. He was all praises about the beauty of the reefs he has visited, and was particularly impressed by the reefs in Anilao, Batangas. He passionately spoke of its beauty and the tiny fish and a few snappers he saw. He marveled at garden eels and was ecstatic about the cardinal fish that swarmed him, waiting to be fed. He proclaimed, without any doubt, that the reefs in Anilao Batangas are the best he has ever seen.
Comparing how I described what a pristine reef looks like during my lecturing days with the way this young diver described his own version of what a pristine reef looks like, it occurred to me that we all have different perceptions of how a beautiful coral reef should look like. And this is usually based on what is considered the “best” at that time.
Learning from my recent Tubbataha diving experience, I realized that we all fall victim to what scientists call the “Shifting Baselines” syndrome—this refers to how each generation’s standard of what a good coral reef should look like shifts over time, as the marine ecosystem in turn changes, sometimes, sadly, for the worst.
Keeping our standards highOver generations, we have marveled at the beauty of coral reefs. But we have never bothered to ask ourselves if such reefs could be any better.
Using correct baselines is imperative in measuring the success of our conservation efforts. When we set our conservation targets to a 10% increase in fish biomass on reefs, for instance, should we be using biomass levels from 1990 or 1890?
It took me 25 years, a fitting tribute to celebrate Tubbataha’s silver anniversary in effective management, to finally dive in these reefs. It enabled me to correct my idea of what a truly un-fished coral reef ecosystem should look like. I look forward to its golden anniversary and to diving in these waters again.
I now begin to wonder whether the baselines would continue to change.
By then, I will be 83 years old.