Awesome People: Apo Island Local community saving a Coral Reef and its Fishery

A marine sanctuary at Apo Island in the Philippines sets in motion community fisheries management that reversed a vicious cycle of destructive fishing and depletion of fish stocks, restoring the island’s coral reef ecosystem and rescuing a fishing village’s livelihood and well-being. Apo Island’s success has inspired 700 other fishing villages to establish marine sanctuaries.

In a remote fishing village in the Philippine archipelago, coastal fishers responded to falling fish stocks by working harder to catch them. The combination of dynamite, longer workdays, and more advanced gear caused stocks to fall faster. On the edge of crisis, this small community decided to create a no-take marine sanctuary on 10% of its coral-reef fishing grounds. This initiative sparked a renaissance of not only their fishery, but also their cherished way of life. Apo is a small island (78 hectares), 9 kilometers from the coast of Negros in the Philippine archipelago. The island has 145 households and a resident population of 710 people. Almost all the men on the island are fishermen. The main fishing grounds are in the area surrounding the island to a distance of roughly 500 meters, an area with extensive coral reefs and reaching a water depth of about 60 meters. Fishermen use small, paddle-driven outrigger canoes, though a few fishermen (particularly younger ones) have outboard motors on their canoes. The main fishing methods are hook and line, gill nets, and bamboo fish traps.

Apo Island’s “negative tip” started about forty years ago. Before then, there was a stable fishery with ample harvest to support fishermen and their families. During the years following World War II the growing human population and increasing fishing pressure made the fishery increasingly vulnerable to unsustainable fishing. The “negative tip” came with the introduction of four destructive fishing methods to the Philippines. Dynamite, cyanide, muro-ami, and small-mesh nets are more effective than traditional Filipino fishing methods, but they are seriously detrimental to the sustainability of the fishery. Not only do they make overfishing and immature fish harvesting easier, they also damage fishing habitat. These fishing methods have been illegal since regulations were imposed in the early 1980s. The Philippine Coast Guard and National Police are responsible for enforcing fishing regulations, but their vast areas of jurisdiction have made it virtually impossible for these agencies to stop destructive fishing. The introduction of destructive fishing methods set in motion a vicious cycle of declining fish stocks and greater use of destructive methods to compensate for deteriorating fishing conditions. Damage to the coral reef habitat is now extensive throughout much of the Philippines, and fish stocks are generally low. Fish stocks in the most degraded areas are down to 5-10% of what they were 50 years ago. Though catches in degraded areas are not sufficient to support a fisherman full-time, the fishery continues to be depressed by a large number of fishermen, many of them part-time and many using illegal fishing methods that they consider the only practical way to catch fish under these conditions. The problem is exacerbated by illegal encroachment of larger commercial fishing boats with gear such as purse seines and ring nets wherever enforcement is lax and nearshore fishing conditions are good enough to make encroachment worthwhile.

The prelude to the positive tip for Apo Island began in 1974 when Dr. Angel Alcala (director of the marine laboratory at Silliman University in Dumaguete City) and Oslob municipality (Cebu) initiated a small marine sanctuary, the region’s first, at uninhabited Sumilon Island (about 50 km from Apo). Dr. Alcala and some of his colleagues at Silliman University visited Apo Island In 1979 to explain how a marine sanctuary could help to reverse the decline in their fishery, a decline that had become obvious to everyone. By that time, fish stocks on the Apo Island fishing grounds had declined so much that fishermen were compelled to spend much of their time traveling as far as 10 km from the island to seek more favorable fishing conditions.

Dr. Alcala took some of the fishermen to see the marine sanctuary at Sumilon Island, which by then was teeming with fish. They were able to see how the sanctuary could serve as a nursery to stock the surrounding area, but they were not completely convinced. Marine sanctuaries were not part of Philippine fisheries tradition. After three years of dialogue between Silliman University staff and Apo Island fishermen, 14 families decided to establish a no-fishing marine sanctuary on the island. A minority of families was able to do it because the barangay captain (local government leader) supported the idea.

The positive tip for Apo Island came with actual establishment of a marine sanctuary in 1982. The fishermen selected an area along 450 meters of shoreline and extending 500 meters from shore as the sanctuary site – slightly less than 10% of the fishing grounds around the island. The sanctuary area had high quality coral but few fish. It required only one person watching from the beach to ensure that no one fished inside the sanctuary, guard duty rotating among the participating families. Fish numbers and sizes started to increase in the sanctuary, and “spillover” of fish from the sanctuary to the surrounding marine ecosystem led to higher fish catches around the periphery, eventually to a distance of several hundred meters. In 1985 all island families decided to support the sanctuary and make it legally binding through the local municipal government.

When the fishermen saw what happened in and around the sanctuary, they concluded that fishing restrictions over the island’s entire fishing grounds should be able to increase fish numbers there as well. With technical support from a coastal resource management organization, the fishermen set up a Marine Management Committee and formulated regulations against destructive fishing and encroachment of fishermen from other areas on their fishing grounds. They established a local “marine guard” (bantay dagat) consisting of village volunteers to police the fishing grounds. It was no longer necessary to guard the sanctuary per se because everyone accepted its status as a no-fishing zone. The main task of the marine guards today is to check boats that enter their fishing grounds from other areas. They do not seem to worry about Apo Island fishermen because sustainable fishing has become an integral part of the island culture.

Interestingly, the total catch by island fishermen is about the same as 23 years ago when the sanctuary began. This is because the fishermen have responded to the increase in fish stocks by reducing their effort instead of catching more fish. Fishermen no longer must travel long distances to fish elsewhere. Fishing is good enough right around the island. A few hours of work each day provides food for the family and enough cash income for necessities. The fishermen worked long hours before. Now they enjoy more leisure time. If they wish, they can use some of the extra time for other income generating activities such as transporting materials or people between the island and the mainland. The most prominent reason for earning extra money is to fund higher education for their children.

The striking abundance and diversity of fish and other marine animals (e.g., turtles and sea snakes) around the island have attracted coral reef tourism (Cadiz and Calumpong 2000). The island has two small hotels and a dive shop, which employ several dozen island residents. In addition, diving tour boats come daily from the nearby mainland. A few island households take tourists as boarders, and some of the women have tourist related jobs such as catering for the hotels or hawking Apo Island T-shirts. The island government collects a snorkeling/diving fee, which has been used to finance a diesel generator that supplies electricity to every house in the island’s main village during the evening. The tourist fees have also financed substantial improvements for the island’s elementary school, garbage collection for disposal at a landfill on the mainland, and improvements in water supply.

Apo Island has served as a model for fishing communities on the adjacent mainlands of Negros and Cebu. The head of Apo Island’s local government visits other fishing villages to explain the sanctuary, and people from other villages visit Apo to see what it’s all about. In 1994 the Apo Island example, and the fact that Dr. Alcala was Minister of Natural Resources, stimulated the Philippine government to establish a national marine sanctuary program that now has about 700 sanctuaries nationwide. Not all are functioning as well as they should, but many seem to be on the same path as Apo. While the national network has provided benefits, it has also reduced the autonomy of Apo’s local government and increased national government interference in management of the sanctuary and the use of revenues from tourist fees.

Apo Island is not perfect. There are personal conflicts, political factions, complaints about government, and many other things typical of human society around the world. People on the island are not particularly affluent. Houses do not have piped water; residents must collect water from faucets strategically placed around the village. Medical services on the island are limited, though doctors can be reached with a half-hour boat ride to the mainland. Many feel that the economic benefits of tourism, which go mainly to the hotel owners, should be distributed more evenly. While participation in the national sanctuary program has reinforced the status of the Apo Island sanctuary and provided networking benefits, it also means island fishermen no longer have complete control of sanctuary management or funds that come from diving and snorkeling fees.

As tourism has increased, concern has grown about the impact of snorkeling and diving on the sanctuary and the fishery (Reboton and Calumpong 2003). The island government has instituted restrictions on the number of tourists in the sanctuary to limit damage to coral there. Fishermen have complained that divers scare fish away from where they are fishing and sometimes damage their fish traps or release fish from the traps. As a consequence, divers are not allowed to swim within 50 meters of fishing activities and the prime fishing area is completely off limits to divers. Some island inhabitants are not satisfied with enforcement of these restrictions, and dialogue continues about what should be done to protect the marine ecosystem from damage by tourism.

The sanctuary has changed the way that people on the island view their world. The fishermen say that before the sanctuary their strategy was to fish a place with destructive methods until it was no longer worth fishing and then move to a new place that was not yet degraded. Now they are committed to keeping one place, their island’s fishing grounds, sustainable. Before, they expected government agencies responsible for enforcing fishing regulations to do so and complained when it didn’t happen. Now they enforce their own regulations themselves. This spirit of local initiative has extended to developing the island’s infrastructure and assuring that island children get the education they need for a decent future. Organization for fisheries management has stimulated the community to organize in other ways as well – particularly women’s groups. The island has a locally operated women’s credit union and a women’s association for selling souvenirs to tourists.

Apo Island’s marine sanctuary is sacred to the people there. They say it saved their coral-reef ecosystem, their fishery, and their cherished way of life. The sanctuary was an EcoTipping Point – a “lever” that reversed decline and set in motion a course of restoration and sustainability.

June 2005, Author: Gerry Marten

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