Saving the ‘Salad Bowl’: A personal account of the struggle to rehabilitate Filipino coral reefs

Posted on 27 August 2009

Through my foggy mask, I make out my dive buddy giving the go signal. I back-roll, ingloriously, into the turquoise waters of northern Batangas in the Philippines. Scant seconds pass as I find my bearings, but soon the scene unfolds: a pulsating shoal of blue green chromis, interspersed with a few ubiquitous sergeant majors, hail us to Poseidon’s realm.
By Gregg Yan

Batangas, Philippines:
Through my foggy mask, I make out my dive buddy giving the go signal. I back-roll, ingloriously, into the turquoise waters of northern Batangas in the Philippines. Scant seconds pass as I find my bearings, but soon the scene unfolds: a pulsating shoal of blue green chromis, interspersed with a few ubiquitous sergeant majors, hail us to Poseidon’s realm.

Beneath is a modest garden of branching and soft corals – not quite like Tubbataha, but slowly getting there.

Led by WWF Hamilo Coast Project Manager Paolo Pagaduan, our dive team is assessing Santelmo cove – a former refuge for blast fishermen, now a reef in regrowth – and the country’s newest marine protected area or MPA.

We level off at 25 feet and come face-to-face with a spotfin lionfish. It is a cool Wednesday morning, just another day at the office.

The Philippines: Welcome to MPA Heaven

The Philippines forms the apex of the Coral Triangle and is the world’s second-largest archipelago. Within this exquisite region sit 7,107 emerald isles fringed by 27,000 square kilometres of unique coral reef.

This region has been hailed by globally-renowned coral expert and Corals of the World author Dr. Charlie Veron as ‘the center of world marine diversity’ – an area so implausibly productive that a single square kilometre can keep on producing over 40 metric tonnes of fresh snapper, grouper and other forms of seafood year on year.

With proper protection, these coral reefs can eradicate Asian poverty and feed billions – a coral-coated cornucopian horn unlike any other.

There’s trouble in paradise, however.

For over a century, unchecked coastal development, overfishing, coral mining, sewage, chemical pollution, acidification, sedimentation, ocean warming and destructive fishing practices have been waging an undersea war against these marine enclaves. Now the Philippines, together with Indonesia, hosts the world’s most threatened coral reefs, less than 5 percent of which remain in excellent condition. Faced with this problem, many archipelagic countries throughout Asia have turned to the MPA solution.

“The establishment of protected areas evolved when people realized that portions of coral reefs needed continual protection to stay productive,” said WWF Conservation Programs Vice-President Joel Palma. “These areas go by a host of names: MPAs, fish sanctuaries or no-take zones. All are loosely defined as inter or subtidal spots reserved by law for the protection of a given area.”

The Sumilon Experiment

The Philippine MPA story began in 1974 – a time when cyanide and blast fishing were at their peak.

Under the guidance of Silliman University, a portion of Sumilon Isle off the south-eastern tip of Cebu was declared a no-take zone – leading to the creation of the country’s first MPA. From 1974 onwards, 25 percent of Sumilon’s coral reefs were meticulously protected. Ten years of improved fish yields from both within and outside the protected zone proved the strategy was sound.

Protection waned in 1985 however, causing fish yields to dwindle. Because of a lack of enforcement or a functioning quota system, dynamite and cyanide fishers quickly overfished the area.

“There is a need for long-term or decadal protection of reserves before fish export from reserves may be expected,” said Dr. Angel Alcala of Silliman University.

The Sumilon experiment proved that constant vigilance was essential to keep MPAs alive and productive.

Today the Philippines hosts about 10 percent of the world’s MPAs – over 500, a figure far greater than any in Southeast Asia. Established largely through local government initiatives and maintained through the efforts of local coastal communities, these undersea enclaves are scattered throughout the archipelago and provide vital safe havens for Philippine marine life.

Sadly, many MPAs are plagued by a lack of funding. Mismanagement is rife, and it is estimated that only 100 of the 500 existing MPAs are properly administered. The rest are dubbed as ‘paper parks’ – areas urgently needing funding and professional management.

Two of the country’s best-managed MPAs are Apo and Danjugan Isles in Negros, both of which received best-managed MPA awards in 1996 and 2001, respectively. The awards were bestowed upon the two sites by the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development (PCAMRD), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the Department of Agriculture (DA).

“Community support is paramount in achieving success,” said Pagaduan. “By protecting their area’s reefs, coastal communities also safeguard future sources of food and livelihood.”

WWF, the local to global conservation organization, has long pioneered the establishment and upkeep of protected areas in the Philippines’ largest coral reef systems. In October 2007, WWF and the local government of Sablayan in Mindoro spearheaded a ban on fishing in Apo Reef, the country’s largest reef system. Fishing was replaced by successful livelihood programmes and an ecotourism drive designed to keep livelihoods afloat while allowing the reef ample time to recover.

Dramatic results are already evident in other model sites. From 2004 to 2005, the world-renowned Tubbataha Reefs off Palawan doubled yearly fish biomass from 166 to 318 metric tonnes per square kilometre – a yield seven times more productive than a typical reef.

WWF and Hamilo Coast are now working with the local government of Nasugbu and allied organizations to establish three new MPAs off the northernmost tip of Batangas.

Nasugbu’s Newest Protected Areas

Composed of 13 limestone-ringed coves demarcating Batangas and Cavite, Hamilo Coast is the first true Filipino community master-planned for ecological sustainability.

Realizing that its best assets lay beneath the water, Hamilo Coast developer SM Land partnered with WWF-Philippines to craft and implement a coastal resource management (CRM) plan designed to revive the once-rich marine habitats along the coast.

The program began with exhaustive assessments of coral reefs, sea grass beds, mangal or mangrove forests and offshore fishing sites.

“Many surveyed reefs bore pockmarks from bomb blasts, scars from 40-years of dynamite fishing,” said Pagaduan. “We eventually identified three priority coves needing urgent protection – Santelmo, Etayo and Pico de Loro.”

Closure of the sites was the first step to recovery.

“At first there was a lot of dissent,” Pagaduan said. “Locals relied on each of the 13 coves for food and livelihood so absolute closure would rob them of income. It took over 10 months of negotiations to convince them that, given time to recover – the coves would be more productive than they could imagine. Two years later, we are ready to finally close off Santelmo for fishing.”

Pagaduan says that since 2007, the difference in fish yields has been noticeable.

“We catch more fish now than two years ago,” said local fisherman Adelito Villaluna.

Local fishers reel in from four to 12 kilograms daily – a figure attributed not just to the MPAs, but to increased enforcement efforts against illegal fishers.

Saving the Salad Bowl

Arguably the best of the three coves, Santelmo has been dubbed the ‘salad bowl’ – owing to the proliferation of Montipora, a curious-looking hard coral which closely resembles a lettuce head. Santelmo reef will now be declared a ‘no-take zone’, while Etayo and Pico de Loro’s reefs will be declared as ‘marine reserves’ – meaning a limited number of hook-and-line fishermen may continue to fish.

“This is a compromise we deemed acceptable,” said WWF Vice-Chairman and CEO Lory Tan. “Originally, we wanted all three coves declared as no-take zones. However, our top priority is still the welfare of Nasugbu’s people, so until enough spillover from Santelmo cove can accommodate their fishing requirements, we cannot deny them their right to fish.”

In the face of worsening climate impacts, protecting biodiversity enclaves makes perfect sense.

“MPAs focus on much more than just the conservation of biodiversity: should we succeed in halting climate change, these pockets of marine resilience will provide the building blocks needed to restore natural mechanisms which provide food and livelihood for millions of people," Tan said. "It’s a natural investment.”

* * *

Back at the Santelmo salad bowl, we find ourselves tracking a dozen-strong school of longfin batfish, graceful residents which vaguely resemble the silver-and-black striped freshwater angelfish familiar to aquarists. As they fade off into the blue, I self-consciously check my air pressure gauge.

At 300 PSI and low on air, we finish up and ponderously begin our ascent, inflating our BCs to begin our rise to the world above. I take a final glimpse of the ghostly batfish and smirk as I imagine how beautiful Santelmo reef will be in a decade. Will it be as beautiful as the coral-covered drop-offs of Balicasag Isle? Will it have the thousands-strong schools of fairy basslets in Coron?

Only continued protection – and time, will tell.

The Philippines forms the apex of the Coral Triangle and includes 27,000 square kilometres of unique coral reef.
© Kurt Domingo/WWF
The Coral Triangle has been hailed by experts as ‘the center of world marine diversity.’
© Lory Tan/WWF Philippines