Coron, Palawan: The effective management of marine protected areas (MPA) in coastal communities across the Philippines would help achieve sustainable fishing that could ensure the livelihood of small fisherfolk, as well as food security, an expert said.
Establishing MPAs plays a critical role in protecting marine biodiversity, ecosystem function and sustaining healthy coastal communities, according to Rene Abesamis, a marine expert from Siliman University who works on research focused on helping reverse the decline in fisheries and biodiversity.
“Marine protected areas are really important because they are excellent to manage fisheries and also preserve or restore biodiversity. This is really important for people who are highly dependent on marine resources both for food, livelihood, through tourism, and also for other ecosystem services,” Abesamis said.
There are about 1,800 MPAs across the country, including the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park and Apo Island, which has became a premier tourist destinations because of their abundant marine life.
MPAs directly benefit adjacent communities because it has turned people “purely dependent on fishing” into workers strongly supported by tourism, said Abesamis, who received his Masters in Tropical Marine Ecology and Fish Biology and PhD in Marine Biology from James Cook University.
“Even without the tourism benefits, there are places in the Philippines wherein fishers themselves recognize the benefits of a marine protected area and they have committed not only to protect that marine protected area from fishing but also to manage the fishing outside, agreeing to use only non-destructive, sustainable fishing methods,” he added.
Abesamis said connectivity among MPAs, or the linking of local populations through the dispersal larvae, juveniles, or adults, improves the chance of survival of marine life resources.
“Fish, for example, when they reproduce, they produce small baby fish that is a larva that can be transported by currents… and because of that life stage, those babies can now be transported from one MPA to the next. When that happens, your multiple marine protected areas in a network are affecting each other through the exchange of their young and when that happens, there’s a greater chance for those babies to survive to adulthood living in those different MPAs,” he explained.
“By creating that network, you give those young fish a chance to live their lives, continue to adulthood and then reproduce inside those MPAs. If your network is working that way, meaning the reserves are close enough to each other and the network is dense enough, you create the synergistic recovery effect which is what you will need to really sustain fisheries and enhance biodiversities over that large scale.”
Abesamis lamented that only 0.5 percent of the municipal waters across the country had been declared as MPAs. Republic Act 8550, or the “Fisheries Code of 1998,” targets 15 percent.
“Philippine laws encourage us to protect 15 percent of municipal waters, but we cannot do that with one large MPA. It’s unrealistic, as large MPA can be very difficult to manage and to get the support from locals to do that might be difficult,” he said.
The marine expert added that 90 percent of existing MPAs are small, and only 3 out of 10 are functional.
Abesamis said there had been a decline in the establishment of MPAs.
“I think that it’s probably because people think that establishing an MPA, at least five or six MPAs in one municipality is enough. People have been contented to say that they have an MPA [and] sometimes it’s been taken for granted,” he explained.
“If you have an MPA, but you still practice destructive fishing outside, that’s not going to do much for the entire system,” Abesamis added.
He said alliances among local government units allow “greater ecological effects” through using MPAs, which has also became a “rallying point” for many other conservation initiatives.
From fishing to tourism
The livelihood of residents in Siete Pecados, one of the protected areas in Coron, Palawan, has changed a 52-hectare MPA was established in 2005.
Cliff Richard Astor, head of Tagumpay village, admitted that there were instances in the past when fishers used illegal methods to augment their low yield.
That has changed.
“People here have accepted that we need to change the reality requiring us to help in preserving and protecting Siete Pecados,” he said.
About 80 percent of the people in Sitio Mauinit shifted from fishing to tourism-related livelihood, Astor said.
In 2015, the local government of Coron and the United States Agency for International Development signed a memorandum of agreement for the implementation of a comprehensive master plan to further protect aquatic and cultural resources of the MPA in Siete Pecados.
Since then, the island has become a popular snorkeling spot because of its coral reefs and diverse tropical marine life.
Last year, 32,460 tourists visited Siete Pecados. The income generated from tourists helped fund regular patrol and monitoring operations, according to Siete Pecados park manager Jose Mazo.
“The lives of the people here have definitely changed. If it wasn’t for the MPA in Siete Pecados, fisherfolk might be still pushing illegal methods of fishing leaving the future generations with countless challenges in terms of livelihood and food security,” Mazo said.
Siete Pecados has become the benchmark for creating marine parks in Coron and other local governments in the Calamianes Island in Palawan.