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Turning the Tide

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Fishermen, scientists, and environmental activists have been at work for decades in imaginary constructs called marine protected areas. This grand experiment started in Apo Island, through the work of one scientist, nearly 40 years ago.

Photography by
Steve de Neef
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Apo Island is a jagged crag of an island; 12 hectares of stone and volcanic soil rising out of the sea southeast of Negros Oriental. Life is hard here.

There’s no farmland, thanks to the rocky terrain, and the waves can be rough even in the best weather, thwarting the small  fishing boats from coming in or out. It’s one of the best dive-tourism spots in the world, but there is neither running water nor electricity.

Across the water, somewhere on the eastern shore of Dumaguete—about 25 kilometers, give or take, from Apo—is a bright-eyed man who still rules over a neat little kingdom. He’s come a long way from his childhood as a fish farmer’s son, though in many ways, figurative and literal, he’s never left. Under his shirt is a long surgical scar that bisects his chest, and he shuffles a little when he walks. He still has a handsome head of hair, combed back into classic movie-star style, which waves gently in the sea breeze when he stands on the beach and looks towards the direction of Apo. “Data,” he mutters. “Data, data, data. Is important.”

He is one of the country’s brightest minds, a scientist of international importance. Dr. Angel Alcala, marine biologist, herpetologist, founder and now director of the Silliman University Angelo King Center for Research and Environmental Management, and newly named National Scientist has also built, on the strength of his name and his reputation, this outpost of scientific study and reason.


You don’t have to be a diver, or scientist, or even an environmentalist for Apo Island and Dr. Alcala to matter to you. If you’re eating seafood today (or plan to for the next few years), you owe that partly to his work.

This isn’t an exaggeration. We’ve been warned for a long time now that seafood stocks are rapidly declining. Studies suggest that we’re overfishing our oceans, and we’ve come very, very close to the brink. We’re not entirely back from the brink, to be honest: As much as 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, or have already collapsed; its ecosystems thrown completely off-kilter and pushed beyond hope of repair or recovery.

The Philippines has been a study of disaster when it comes to environmental matters. In the water, it’s arguably worse: there’s just too much sea in between our 7,107 islands for us to properly monitor; in any case, it’s been a problem that’s been out of sight, out of mind. And so our decades of bad practices—of dynamite and cyanide fishing, of unregulated commercial fishing, of eating mindlessly—have come back to haunt us.

And yet, there is a bright spot. It is, as the good doctor says, in the data. Almost 40 years after he campaigned to make Apo Island the second experimental marine sanctuary in the Philippines, the data is proving him right.


There is a hard beauty to Apo above water; look at her underwater, and she’s stunning. Divers always sound a little bit crazy when they invariably claim that “it’s a different world underwater.” Photos, words—we don’t always do justice to the experience. No matter how wide-angled the lens you use, the photo doesn’t quite capture the sheer expanse of the water, for one thing. The experience is liberating and claustrophobic at the same time—you’re freed from the earth’s gravity, but the water is weighty, suffocating.

And nobody talks enough about the colors. It isn’t just that it’s more colorful down there than most people might expect; it’s that the colors themselves look like they shouldn’t belong to animals or plants. The shapes are different. The rules are different. But it’s not a different world—it’s the same world that all of us live in. That’s why it’s so strange, and so important that we protect it.

In many ways, Apo Island was the perfect field laboratory for Dr. Alcala’s  work, because it was a microcosm of everything that could go wrong in the wide world out there. Even in the 1970s, the waters around Apo were being devastated by muro-ami—a practice that had fishermen working together, banging on the corals to produce a sonic assault that would scare the fish toward wide nets. The fishermen would move as one, plowing through the corals with rocks tied to ropes. One muro-ami wave could flatten a coral reef that only regrows, if the conditions are right, from 1 to 10cm a year.

And nothing else on earth is quite like a coral reef. Inch for inch, it’s shelter for more species of living things than any other marine ecosystem—every kilometer of healthy reef can provide us with up to 15 tons of seafood each year. Its very makeup helps produce nitrogen and other essential nutrients for marine life, and its presence protects shorelines from erosion and storm damage.

The onus for protection is on the Philippines, too. As part of the mystical-sounding Coral Triangle, our waters foster incredible biodiversity, and—with Indonesia—contain about 77 percent of the coral reefs in Southeast Asia. In other words, if we mess up, we mess it up for the entire region.  

There’s just too much sea in between our 7,107 islands for us to properly monitor.

You must understand that the biggest scares in the 1970s were political, not environmental. The Cold War between the US and what was then the USSR was the dominant force in our collective mindset. Closer to home, there was the Vietnam War, and then, of course, Martial Law. Nobody had time to worry about the environment, and global warming was a concept for the future.

So this was the world that Dr. Alcala was working in. His proposal then must have sounded unnecessarily alarmist and draconian: the creation of a Marine Protected Area (MPA), the first in the country, in Sumilon Island in Cebu and in Apo Island. This would include a “no-take zone” where fishermen would be forbidden from fishing. Today, MPAs are a commonly used conservation tool, but in the 70s and 80s, there were a very small handful in the entire world.

Dr. Angel Alcala has worked with the community to build the Apo Island Marine Protected Area.


MPAs aren’t giant aquariums. The area isn’t suddenly, magically encased inside protective glass borders where people can’t get in; there’s no coast guard to patrol every moment of the day.

There’s often nothing more than buoys to mark the edges of an MPA, and the common consent of the people living near it to honor the designation. It’s as if somebody put up flags around a small area of forest, and got everyone living around it to agree that no one could walk or hunt or disturb the plants inside those borders. “It took three years!” Dr. Alcala will tell you emphatically. “Three years of talking to the fishermen and the community. We had to build relationships and demonstrate to them that it was for their own good.”

For all his achievements, perhaps Dr. Alcala’s most surprising one was getting the community on Apo Island to agree to the sanctuary.

Apo Island feels remote, even if it takes only a scant half-hour to get there from Dauin, the jump-off point from the Negros Oriental mainland. The storm had passed days ago, far to the north, and even the low-pressure area that came with it had also left, but the waves had still been far too rough to allow the boat to approach.

So finally, on the first clear day out, our dive boat made an urgent approach to Apo. The jump-off point for trips from the mainland is in Malatapay, on the beach just past the market. There’s a small hut on the shore where guests are asked to register before making the crossing, decorated with a tarp with some bullet points about the Apo Island marine protected area—this is overlaid with a smaller sign that declares the reserve closed to divers; typhoons Washi and Bopha (Sendong and Pablo to us) had slammed into one side of Apo, and the wave action had pummeled the reef into rubble. Half the reef was gone, said early reports; last year Greenpeace claimed that it was nearly all gone.

Well, it’s not all gone. The area designated as sanctuary was leveled, but the typhoons had ravaged a very clear path of destruction; you can almost draw a line underwater to show where the destruction ended and the untouched reefs remain. It is, in other words, still a world-class diving destination.


Tourists still flock to Apo, coming from either Dauin’s growing number of dive resorts on the mainland, or tourists coming from Siquijor. There are still enough guests who make the trip from Dumaguete to sustain the handful of dive shops in town. Our boat belongs to the Apo Island Beach Resort, the only resort of its kind on the island itself, and so it’s also carrying supplies with it: gallon jugs of water, food, a large assortment of small necessities. There are four islanders making the crossing with us—a courtesy the tourist boats extend to the residents.

Even on a clear day like this, the waves crash white on the rocks, and our landing is wet and rough. There is the option to dock on the far side of the island, but that means having to carry boxes of gear over a hill.

The DENR-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) outpost is the first stop for visitors, because the government has to collect fees from those who want to take a look underwater. The sanctuary here had made news in the early 90s for their strict limits on the number of divers per day (it must have seemed then like beggars insisting on being choosers); the limits still exist, though it doesn’t seem to be written down anywhere. There is a large tarp outside that invites visitors to the turtle sanctuary just offshore, and lists the five kinds of turtles found in the Philippines, with accompanying photos. (The photos are mostly misidentified.)

THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE

Why the Philippine coral reefs are so important to all of us, and to the rest of the world.

  • 1. Counting only the economic value of fisheries, tourism, and shoreline protection, the costs of destroying 1km of coral reef ranges between US$137,000 to 1,200,000 over a 25-year period. Southeast Asia’s coral reef fisheries alone are estimated to yield US$ 2.4 billion annually. (World Resources Institute) 2. More than 80% of the world’s shallow reefs are severely overfished (Australian Government Report) 3. 32 of the 34 recognized animal Phyla are found on coral reefs; in comparison, only 9 are in our tropical rainforests (Status of Coral Reefs of the World, GCRMN) 4. Southeast Asia is considered the global epicentre of marine diversity. Its 100,000km2 of coral reefs (34% of the world’s total) are home to over 600 of the 800 reef-building coral species in the world (WRI press release) 4. Occupying less than one quarter of 1% of the marine environment, coral reefs are home to more than 25% of all known marine fish species (WRI Reefs at Risk) 5. 58% of the world’s coral reefs are potentially threatened by human activity (WRI Reefs at Risk) 6. We have already lost 27%of the world’s coral reefs. If present rates of destruction are allowed to continue, 60% of the world’s coral reefs will be destroyed over the next 30 years (Cesar, Degradation report) 7. More than 450 million peoplelive within 60km of coral reefs, with the majority directly or indirectly deriving food and income from them (Seaweb) Fact sheet from the World Wildlife Fund


Progress comes very slowly to Apo Island, and you have to squint a little to find the signs. There are other, smaller dive resorts going up, some of which are friendly little homestays. One of the first locals to have been certified as a divemaster has now put up his own scuba shop on the island. But there’s still only one narrow cement walkway that goes around town, and it’s busy with wooden pushcarts transporting water from the communal wells to the 145 or so houses on the island. The official figures put the number of residents at just under 1,000 people, still mostly engaged in fishing as their main source of livelihood.

We see two boys play by the small lagoon, racing paper sailboats from one shore to the other, as we walk through town. Two fishermen are starting a small bonfire near their boats, about to cook one of the fishes they’ve caught for an early lunch. We wave hello to a woman who is in the middle of her bath, which she is doing, fully clothed, by the well; she stops her soaping up to exchange news with us. Everybody else seems to be busy running one household errand or another.

If you think the success of the marine sanctuary on Apo is due entirely to the forces of tourism—that the fishermen recognize the importance of keeping the reefs pretty for the money-bringing tourists—you only have to take a walk around the island to understand that this isn’t true. Tourism doesn’t touch the lives of the great majority of the people on Apo; they literally depend on the sea for livelihood, for food.


There was a mermaid in captivity, in one of the tanks of the marine lab. The scientists had found her and captured her so they could study her. And the lords of the sea were angered by the loss of their daughter, and so they withheld rain, and they withheld the fish.  

The hungry farmers and fishermen went to the marine lab to protest, to ask the scientists to let the mermaid go. They blamed the scientists for their heartlessness and their excessive curiosity, and for angering their gods.

I learned about this not from a book of folklore, but from the newspapers. This happened a few years ago, during the drought of 2011. “Yes, yes, I remember it,” Dr. Alcala says impatiently, barely breaking stride. He is not too amused, and he has no time for that nonsense. He still shuttles back and forth between Dumaguete and Manila, at least twice a month, and keeps a schedule that would punish someone half his age.

To be honest, the Silliman University marine lab is both more strange and more mundane than one might expect. The building and grounds are discrete from the beautiful main campus that is in the heart of Dumaguete, built much later on the beach, on funds that Dr. Alcala raised from grants. There’s only a handful of marine biologists on the grounds at any given time; there are more crocodiles than people, actually—in the breeding pens built above the swampy area thick with mangroves. There’s a small storeroom on the grounds, little more than a shack, and its filled to the rafters with whalebones, including a complete skeleton of a Bryde’s whale that takes up the middle of the floor.

The old building, which still carries Dr. Alcala’s name on a signboard above the door, is abandoned in favor of the much newer, bigger, more modern structure that houses the faculty’s offices and labs. Dr. Alcala has retired from teaching (“They said I was too old,” he laughs), but still holds the post of professor emeritus and director of the marine lab.


For all his achievements, perhaps Dr. Alcala’s most surprising one was getting the community on Apo Island to agree to the sanctuary. He essentially convinced them to give up the most obvious source of their subsistence on the gamble that they would, one day, see returns. They could fish outside the sanctuaries, no problem, but they needed to give their word that they would leave the protected area alone.

Apo is the second marine protected area to be designated; the first was Sumilon, in Cebu. In the three years or so that it took Dr. Alcala to convince the fishermen of Apo to agree to the sanctuary, he took the community to Sumilon, where the sanctuary was already showing results—the waters there were teeming with fish, while the Apo Island fishermen had had to go further and further out to sea to get their catch.

The idea was that the sanctuary would serve as a nursery to stock the surrounding waters. Fish could breed in peace within the sanctuary, and they would eventually venture out of the sanctuary where they could be caught.

As part of the Coral Triangle, our waters foster incredible biodiversity, and—with Indonesia—contain about 77 percent of the coral reefs in Southeast Asia.

In the beginning, only 14 families bought into the idea—“Marine sanctuaries were not part of Philippine fisheries tradition,” a paper written by ecologist Gerry Marten wryly notes—and agreed in 1982 to designate an area of about 450m along the shoreline, extending 500 meters into the water, as a sanctuary. It was purely community-run, so guard duty fell to the families who signed up.

By 1985, just three years later, the success of the experiment was so readily apparent that all the families on Apo agreed to participate in running the sanctuary, and the local municipal government made it official. Pleased by the success of the initial MPA, the community initiated the move to place restrictions over the fishing grounds surrounding the entire island, and to create their own Marine Management Committee and a Bantay Dagat contingent, staffed entirely by volunteers from the community.

It’s one of the things Dr. Alcala is happiest about: “The Apo people are very masipag. They took it upon themselves to protect their own resources.”

Sadly, Apo Island and its first model, Sumilon, have become a study in contrasts. The early success of Sumilon’s sanctuary has collapsed, falling prey to the usual suspects—lack of political will, corruption, uneven execution of regulations. It’s become one of the many “paper parks” around the world, which exist in name but not in practice. Apo, on the other hand, continues to thrive as a marine sanctuary. Even the destruction wrought by the two typhoons hasn’t concerned Dr. Alcala, mostly because there is now an initiative to designate a new area around the island as sanctuary.


As a scientist, Dr. Alcala is gratified at the research that they’re able to churn out. “Two hundred papers,” he counts, “about fifty of them on marine protected areas.” In the last decade or so, he has been able to produce academic papers with gratifying titles like “Marine Reserve Benefits Local Fisheries,” or “No-Take Marine Reserves and Fisheries Management in the Philippines: A New People Power Revolution.”

Make no mistake: We’re still in trouble, and our waters are still severely overfished. “There is a curious belief among people that there will always be fish coming in from the deeper waters. Which is false, because production of fish comes mostly from the shallow portion of the oceans, not the deep,” he says. But it’s not all hopeless.

“It can be reversed,” he says quickly. “But you need marine protected areas. You need about 20 to 30 percent of our entire coral reefs to be marine in marine protected areas—currently, we’re at about 5 percent.”

He pauses for a long time. “I want fishermen to catch more fish. Conservation is about people; it’s about their well-being. I am a son of a fisherman after all.”

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This story was originally published in GRID Issue 05.