The Treasure Hunt

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The following article is from Gregg Yan, Information, Education and Communications Officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Philippines).

“Apo Reef is the Jewel of Mindoro,” says former Sablayan Mayor Godofreido Mintu. “Perhaps you may come to realize just what its treasure is, but only after you dive.” Fuelled by a lifelong fascination with both pirate lore and bizarre quests, the old man’s words struck home.

Photo by Toppx2

Paradise lies troubled, however. For over a century, coastal development, destructive fishing practices, coral mining, sedimentation, overfishing, chemical pollution and climate change consequences (ocean warming, acidification and coral bleaching) have been waging an undersea war against our marine enclaves.

Now the Philippines, together with Indonesia, hosts the world’s most threatened coral reefs, less than 5% of which remain in excellent condition. Faced with this problem, many countries within the Coral Triangle established Marine Protected Areas to conserve what’s left.

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

Today the Philippines hosts about 10% of the world’s MPAs – over 500, more than any other country in Southeast Asia. Established largely through local government initiatives and maintained through the blood, sweat and tears of local coastal communities, these undersea enclaves are scattered throughout the archipelago to provide vital safe havens for Philippine marine life as well as a growing number of eco-conscious tourists.

Sadly, many MPAs are plagued by a lack of funding. Mismanagement is rife, and it is estimated that little over 100 MPAs are properly administered. The rest are dubbed as ‘paper parks’ – areas urgently needing funding and professional management. MPA incursions due to hunting have been recurring sources of friction between the Philippines and its neighbours.

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In September of 2007, 126 endangered green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and 10,000 turtle eggs were found aboard Chinese fishing vessel F/V 01087 in Sulu.

In August of 2008, 101 critically endangered hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) were found aboard Vietnamese fishing vessel F/V Q.ng 91234-TS near El Nido.

In April of 2009, 14 green sea turtles were found aboard an unmarked Chinese speedboat near Cauayan Isle, also in El Nido.

Since the 1990s, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has been working with partners in the private sector, government agencies and civil society in furthering scientific research, policy reform, protected area and community-based management within the Coral Triangle. Its Philippine office has pioneered the establishment and upkeep of Marine Protected Areas in some of the country’s best-known and most productive coral reefs.

Two of the country’s best-managed MPAs include Apo Reef off the western coast of Occidental Mindoro and the Tubbataha Reefs off the Sulu Sea.

A Jewel in the Orient’s Pearl

Hailed as the Jewel of Mindoro and a former world-class dive site, 30 years of destructive fishing has left much of Apo Reef in an abysmal state. In October of 2007, WWF and the local government of Sablayan in Mindoro spearheaded the total closure of Apo Reef, at 34 square-kilometers – the country’s largest – for fishing. In its stead followed alternative livelihood programmes and a robust ecotourism drive designed to keep livelihoods afloat while allowing the reef ample time to recover.

Giant fish aggregation devices, locally termed payaw, have been installed to provide alternate fishing spots for coastal communities. The crude but effective contraptions feature a buoy, a counterweight and anywhere from 10 to 20 giant coconut fronds. Algae growths on the decomposing fronds attract herbivores such as surgeonfish and rabbitfish, which then draw in larger predators.

Local group leader Elmo Bijona testifies to the effectiveness of the devices: “A single payaw can yield maybe 15 kilograms of good fish per boat daily. You can land tambakol, tulingan, galunggong and even yellowfin tuna on any given night.” The steady rise in the size and number of fish has been matched by an upsurge of tourists, proving that ecological stewardship goes hand in hand with profit.

Even more dramatic results are evident in other model sites. From 2004 to 2005, the world-renowned Tubbataha Reefs off Palawan doubled its yearly fish biomass from 166 to 318 metric tons per square kilometer – a yield seven times more productive than a typical reef. In addition, Tubbataha’s fertile reefs constantly seed adjoining regions such as eastern Palawan and western Visayas with fish and invertebrate spawn. Through the work of WWF and its allies, Apo Reef may one day be what Tubbataha is now.

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Natural Investments

Apo Reef differs from all other WWF-Philippines project sites in that it is kept afloat almost exclusively by donations. Bright Skies for Every Juan is a pioneering programme which enjoins Cebu Pacific passengers to indirectly offset the ecological impacts of their flights by donating to the upkeep of the reef.

The programme synergizes the efforts of WWF, Cebu Pacific and the local government of Sablayan to bolster the region’s resilience to climate change impacts through MPA protection, the promotion of responsible ecotourism and the introduction of alternative livelihoods.

“Cebu Pacific’s decision to spearhead climate adaptation is a prime example of private-sector leadership,” says WWF-Philippines CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan. “Our government alone cannot turn back the tide of climate effects. It is the private sector which has the skills needed to think incisively, move efficiently and manage risk.”

In the face of worsening climate impacts, protecting biodiversity enclaves makes perfect sense. Says Tan, “Our work in Apo Reef and other protected areas focus on more than just biodiversity conservation: 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. This is a natural investment.”

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