For Filipina diver and marine scientist Ariana Agustines, it was the fear that time was running out that brought her back home to the Philippines.
A graduate of marine biotechnology from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, Ariana trained in lab-based research, working to find sustainable alternatives to non-renewable sources like crude oil. But the more she learned about the biodiversity crisis in the Philippines, the more she realized the time to act was now. She changed course, flying back to assist with local marine conservation efforts.
Since 2018, Ariana has been a project leader under LAMAVE, a local non-profit organization dedicated to protecting marine megafauna. Specializing in the study of sharks, rays, and skates, she has worked with local communities in both Palawan and Southern Leyte.
Around the world, marine ecosystems are experiencing a decline in shark populations due to unrestrained commercial fishing practices. Left unchecked, this can affect livelihood and food security in many coastal communities. We talk to Ariana about the state of shark conservation in the Philippines, the potential of shark tourism, and how travelers can contribute to their preservation.
Your work with LAMAVE focuses on local shark and manta ray conservation. From your research, which places around the country should be considered priority areas when it comes to protecting these species?
ARIANA: It’s difficult to assess all potential priority areas in the Philippines [as there are over] 7,000 islands [that] host almost half of the shark species identified worldwide. One of the best examples is Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in Puerto Princesa, Palawan [which] hosts 23 different shark species [and] has the highest abundance of gray reef sharks and white-tip sharks globally. Tubbataha [has been successful because] it has the adequate space and size to ensure that the local habitats and movements of all shark species are covered by the marine protected area. [It’s also been] long-established, giving the depleted resources time to recover.
To create this transition would mean having an alternative plan set in place. We need to have enough data to say okay, first of all, this is the problem. What are the possible solutions?
Another important area that’s not yet fully protected is Honda Bay in Puerto Princesa. There are several threatened marine megafauna [in the area]: sharks, dugongs, whales, different cetaceans. We’ve done preliminary studies and found that bycatch is still relatively high, [so] it’s a priority area we need to consider for protection.
[Lastly,] there’s Manta Bowl in Ticao (Masbate), [which] hosts the largest aggregation of reef mantas in the Philippines. But boat anchors and nets are destroying these seamount habitats. Although Manta Bowl is part of the Ticao-Burias Pass Protected Seascape, there needs to be better regulation and management in this area to ensure the longevity and prosperity of the area for reef mantas.
How do you work with the locals in these areas to ensure the protection of these animals?
ARIANA: We collect data in Honda Bay, Tubbataha, and Manta Bowl, and share [these] with the LGUs and local community to identify the problem. We [then] try to work with these different stakeholders to create a more effective plan of managing [their] resources. We also conduct training and workshops.
And how often is that?
ARIANA: We try to do this regularly [and relay] new information to the LGU and partner communities so they’re aware of the situation in their area. Because we work in the area every day and collect data, we can then advise the best management practices to better protect these areas.
As both a diver and a scientist, what is your opinion on shark tourism? Can it really be a viable solution to the decline of sharks worldwide?
ARIANA: Shark tourism can be a viable solution, but the main underlying problem is overfishing, and commercial fishing is far from the scope of tourism. But in terms of its capacity to regulate artisanal or coastal fishing, it can give value to the community [as long as] you give them a viable alternative in return. You can’t just take.
It’s difficult because it entails behavioral change from the community. Trying to change something within yourself [is] already difficult; imagine trying to change something that has such a large economic value attached to it. To create this transition would mean having an alternative plan set in place. We need to have enough data to say okay, first of all, this is the problem. What are the possible solutions?
The Philippines is known to have pioneered the original whale shark tourism destination in Asia. Having worked with local communities on the ground, what have you observed with the locals’ relationship with the sharks?
ARIANA: LAMAVE has been working in Southern Leyte for eight years and in the beginning, the relationship that the locals had with the whale sharks was more [economical], like they’re just fish. But by working with them through data collection and [promoting] tourism, we’re trying to establish proper codes of conduct with the Tourism Whaleshark faction. It’s an ongoing process but we’ve [already] established a local ordinance that regulates these interactions, and the local community is in charge of implementing and enforcing this.
I only started with LAMAVE two years ago, [so] I’m not really sure what their perception was prior to tourism becoming more prevalent in their life. But these locals are now tour guides, spotters. They swim up to the sharks and see them alive in their natural habitat. In other places that [still] catch sharks, rays, [the people] see it as just another dead fish on the line. But in places that have developed these personal relationships, they see the intrinsic value; [it’s no longer] just economical or monetary.
Is there a place around the world that has safely and properly implemented shark conservation and tourism programs, and gotten positive results in return? What do you think we can learn from these places?
ARIANA: The best example is Palau in Micronesia: they declared the first natural shark sanctuary in the world back in 2009, and the whole nation is involved in tourism. The population of sharks have increased and the reefs are pristine [because of it]. People from all over the world know Palau as a shark diving destination.
We need to invest resources in gathering the baseline data, and support the communities that will be affected by [these] changes. [We need to] help them adapt to new laws and regulations so that they won’t find ways around it or continue to do it illegally. We also need strong leadership and consistent effort; leaders who plan long-term [and] realize the value of and prioritize conserving our natural resources, knowing [it] will lead to greater benefits for the entire nation.
It’s also important [to have] proper regulation, enforcement, and monitoring. Right now we do have a lot of marine protected areas but they’re just plans on paper. If we really made sure that each of those protected areas was properly monitored, it would benefit [not just] the coastal community but everyone as well. [And this goes] for environmental programs in general.
If there is one place/tourist destination in the Philippines you would say we need to be paying more attention to, where would that be and why?
ARIANA: I think one of the up and coming tourism activities is centered on Manta ray watching, or Manta tourism. This has potential to [grow] if proper regulations are enforced and fisheries are monitored. Places like Manta Bowl and Coron are good places for these tourism endeavors to really prevail.
In other places that [still] catch sharks, rays, [the people] see it as just another dead fish on the line. But in places that have developed these personal relationships, they see the intrinsic value; [it’s no longer] just economical or monetary.
Ticao is part of the protected seascape but it needs proper enforcement and has to be monitored regularly to ensure that habitats are protected so these species can thrive. For sharks, based on our study in 2018, we’ve identified Cagayancillo (Palawan) as a potential [site for] good shark tourism habitat, but again, fishing is so prevalent there. We found that sharks are absent in the shallow reefs but were present in the deeper parts [so] if you reduce or eliminate the fishing pressure then the sharks [can] inhabit their previous habitats.
It’s important to properly set regulations in [these] places so that the species and marine life can thrive, and [we can] really call it a hotspot or mega diverse area.
How can we as travelers and regular people contribute to efforts to protect sharks?
ARIANA: Be mindful of what you eat. The most prevalent threat to sharks is overfishing, whether that’s through targeted or bycatch fishing. A lot of commercial fishing practices take out millions of sharks a year just to supply seafood demand.
The Sustainable Seafood Guide through Oceana or the Seafood Watch is a pocket-sized guide you can download that categorizes which species of fish, crustacean, sharks, etc. are most sustainable [to eat] and how it is harvested. Being aware of where your seafood comes from and what you’re eating does have an impact on the global populations of sharks and rays.
As travelers, support the local community, support local businesses and endeavors. [When] you support the local community, you vote with your choice. You say, “I value these products [and] I value this more than the mass-produced souvenirs, or going to local homestays and restaurants vs businesses that [are] foreign-owned.” If you go to a place and show them this is your preference, it’ll help shift their thinking. It helps them see the value of their resources, as well.
If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s the intrinsic value of nature. Everyone has been cooped up and we’re all looking to get outside [to] nature, whether that be the oceans, the mountains, or the forest. We need fresh air. I think one takeaway from this [is] that we should value our natural resources, because it’s important to us. And not for anything other than [its] intrinsic value, the pleasure it gives us just by being in nature.
ERRATUM: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ariana worked as a project leader in Donsol, Sorsogon.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Photo by Eric Chocat