This natural marine park helps keep a remote Philippine town alive

Posted on October, 06 2015

The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, popular dive destination, and no-take zone, helps protect the marine reserves of Cagayancillo in the Sulu Sea. A WWF-Philippines staff member recounts how the organization is working to ensure the communitys food supply and income source
By Sophia Dedace, WWF-Philippines

Morning has broken in Cagayancillo, in the heart of the Sulu Sea. On the coast of this remote island, the sound of a boat engine signals the start of a new day. Hundreds of fishers head out to harvest seaweed, while others steer their boats to deeper waters to fish.
Cagayancillo, Palawans precious jewel, is a small community amid the vastness of the Sulu Sea. Nestled 330 km east of Puerto Princesa, Cagayancillo is made up of 30 islets and one main island, a town with 5,500 residents. After an 18-hour voyage onboard the WWF-Philippines research vessel M/Y Navorca, we reach this far-flung town at daybreak, just in time to see it come to life.  
One must travel far to get to this remote municipality. Trips to Cagayancillo are usually scheduled from March to May, a brief window of calm water. Outside this time frame, one must brave the Sulu Seas treacherous waters. 

Cagayancillo also holds political jurisdiction over the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP), a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular dive destination. Though it is 170 km away, Tubbatahas richness seeds Cagayancillo with life and abundance. Over time, Tubbatahas classification as a Marine Protected Area (MPA) and no-take zone benefited Cagayancillo's lush marine reserves to ensure an ample food supply and income source for the townsfolk.
As is common to most Philippine small-island communities, subsistence fishing is the towns lifeblood. Pacifico Bundac Jr., a 56-year-old father of three, returns to shore after harvesting a sizeable haul of seaweed and catching enough fish to feed his family. Bundacs barrio in Barangay Magsaysay is tucked in the main islands western end. However, the increasing demand for fish translates to mounting pressure on the sea.
“I have been fishing with my father since the day I learned to swim,” he says. “Back then, we returned to shore with enough fish to feed us for days. Today, we fish just enough to fill our stomachs or earn the day’s keep. We do not want to abuse the abundance we have been blessed with, or else, we’d run out of fish to catch. We farm seaweed to augment what we earn,” he says.

Serious threat
Meanwhile, in Barangay Nusa, located on the islands opposite end, fishers and seaweed farmers are encountering a serious threat.
“For the first time since I was born, the sea appears to be sick,” says 37-year-old seaweed farmer Domingo Fabros. “Our fish and seaweed are dying. Our buyers from Cebu used to buy our seaweed for 30 Pesos (P) per kilogram. Now, we only earn P10 a kilo. If we lose our catch and our seaweed farms, we lose our ability to earn.”

That afternoon, WWF led a reconnaissance team composed of municipal officials and law enforcers to collect fish, seaweed, and water samples from affected areas. Tests conducted by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) revealed that cyanide was the culprit of a recent fish-kill. The Disaster Risk Management Council has convened to help affected fishers and seaweed planters.  
With the sea as Cagayancillos economic engine, WWF-Philippines is working with the local government and conservation partners to establish protocols for incidents that threaten to destroy the seas ability to feed Kagayanens.
WWF-Philippines began its work in the island-town in 2000, as part of its mandate to help conserve the Tubbataha Reefs and assist Cagayancillo in managing its local marine reserves. The organizations conservation work in Cagayancillo expanded under the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion (SSME) Programme, and has now become part of an overall network-wide strategy to safeguard the Coral Triangle, the marine region encompassing the waters of six nationsMalaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Lesteand considered the planets hotbed of marine life.
A monitoring study conducted by the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) showed that fish biomass in Cagayancillo stood at 137 metric tonnes per square kilometer (MT/km2) in 2014. This is 43% higher from six years ago, when fish biomass was calculated at 96 MT/km2. The increase is proof positive that establishing MPAs is an effective way to replenish fish stocks.
Cagayancillo is a sixth-class municipality whose people live below the poverty threshold for rural communities. The environment is its lifeline; take away its richness, and you take away its peoples ability to sustain themselves and secure a better future for their children.

Roadmap to sustainable growth

WWF-Philippines convened an emergency meeting with the towns Municipal Development Council to jumpstart the process of drafting a Comprehensive Land and Water Use Plan (CLWUP). The document, which will cover environmental conservation, livelihood, ecotourism, education, and energy security, is the towns roadmap to sustainable growth.
The CLWUP's highlight will be the establishment of the 200,000-hectare Marine Protected Area—an initiative supported by Switzerland-based Fondation Segré to boost the Sulu Sea's protection and productivity, and improve the lives of the Kagayanens. 

"If we care for our natural resources well, growth will be within reach. But if we squander such richness, what else will be left with us?"WWF-Philippines Project Manager Marivel Dygico tells the Council. "The CLWUP that we will help create shall set Cagayancillo as a model small-island community that is able to plan for its future and is capable of implementing such a plan."
Nothing could be a more perfect example of such vulnerability than remote Cagayancillo, where marine resource extraction supports almost 80% of all households. Here, the sea means everything.  
It is another morning in Cagayancillo. Dozens of fishing boats dot the water’s glassy surface. Mothers tend to their livestock and farmlands, while children walk to their schools decorated by large and lively murals with the words, “Let us care for our marine reserve.”
Supported by local companies like FCM Travel Solutions, and Cebu Pacific, plus the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board, WWF-Philippines will continue working with the people of Cagayancillo to achieve a harmonious balance between socioeconomic security and environmental conservation. 

The M/Y Navorca revs up her engine for the long journey back to Puerto Princesa. The trip may have ended, but the hard work has just begun.
If you would like to support WWF-Philippines conservation work in Cagayancillo and in the Sulu Sea, please log on to
Cagayancillo Sunset
© Sophia Dedace / WWF
Children of Cagayancillo
© Sophia Dedace / WWF
Pacifico Bundac - Cagayancillo Seaweed Farmer and Fisher
© Sophia Dedace / WWF
Cagayancillo Underwater
© Sophia Dedace / WWF