Philippines’ First Marine Sanctuary | Apo Island

Today I want to talk about an example of a highly successful marine conservation story, here in the Philippines. A preservation model so well done, that it could be the template for many more future marine life and coral habitats and sustainable fisheries around the world.

I’m talking about the incredible Apo Island in the Philippines.

Apo is a tiny island of about 12 square hectors, located about 30 kilometers south of Negros Oriental. There is a population of around 1000, most of which include the rangers, and the staff of two small resorts. The few locals that live on the island make a living off of tours, souvenirs selling and tourism based jobs.

But all this sounds like every other small island around the Philippines, so what makes Apo Island unique? Lets get into that.

In 1979, as an experiment due to drastic declines in fish populations around the Island, Silliman University’s Dr. Angel Alcala brought a proposal to the local communities and governance of Apo, that was unheard of at the time.

The goal was to regulate destructive fishing, increase fish abundance and biodiversity, and still maintain or even increase local incomes.

That sounds like a great goal, but of course it was not easy to convince a whole community of old-school fishermen of the change. Dr. Alcala needed to do some convincing.

apo island reef

It took three long years of talks, but eventually in 1982 Alcala and the Silliman Marine Laboratory, along with the Apo Island mayor and local fishermen, they came together and selected an area along 450 meters of shoreline and extending 500 meters from shore as the sanctuary site.

So because huge areas were now illegal to fish, a new economy needed to be developed to take the place of the lost incomes and food. Tourism was the answer, in Alcala’s plans.

Philippines was quickly becoming a hotspot for SCUBA divers and snorkelers and beach lovers, and there was no reason that Apo Island couldn’t attract their share. The only catch was, that those same areas that were off limits to fishing, would also be off limits to divers and dive boats, or any anchoring of any kind.

apo island drone

The long term strategy was simple: certain sections would be off limits to everyone, while others weren’t. Then after a year or more, they would alternate, giving each section time to grow new habitats, all the way from tiny corals, to huge schools.

Corals would get relief from dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing, destructive anchors, and everything else, including divers accidentally kicking corals.

The results speak for themselves. The hard and soft corals, undisturbed, grew free and wide, which attracted countless reef fish that use them as nurseries. The reef fish numbers grew huge, which then attracted the bigger fish. The whole ecosystem continued to expand. It was a huge success. 

Another big factor to the success, was that only locals of the island are allowed to fish there now. No more big Chinese vessels with long lines, and no more fleets from Negros or Mindanao. The fish would only support local economy and families. 

When it was time to alternate the off-limit areas, the destructive fishing practices, like dynamite, were still illegal, and it was still regulated. On top of that, each year there were fewer and fewer fishermen, as they found better incomes in the tourism industry.

Permanent anchor points and buoys were also set up in designated dive sites, so that no dive boat would ever drop anchor and a giant table coral again. On top of that, the number of daily boats was/is regulated, so that there is never more than a reef can handle.

So what has been the outcome of Dr. Angel Alcala’s big experiment?

diving apo island

In short, the results are far reaching and incredible. The incredible part is obvious when you get to visit Apo Island, and either snorkel or dive above fields and fields of hard and soft corals in every color. It is now considered by many, including myself, as one of the top 100 dive locations in the world, just from its sheer number of abundant species found on each dive site.

The Chicago aquarium even modeled their new exhibit from one of the dive sites around Apo, it’s that spectacular.

On my last few visits to the island, the dive site with the HUGE school of barracuda is now closed, and we dove on the north side. On a single dive I saw no less than 22 turtles, not to mention the countless corals and fish. It was amazing as usual. As is the big school of barracuda, when you are allowed to go!

But if you don’t want to take my word for it, here are some numbers for you:

Just around this tiny island, there have so far been more than 650 fish species, and over 400 species of corals documented here. That is huge!

To get a perspective on that number, in all of Florida, with it’s 1350 miles of coastline, there are only around 900 known species of fish! Compare that to Apo Island’s 5 hectars of land!

So that is why it is a spectacular result, but why did I say its also wide spread?

To answer that, after seeing Apo Island (Philippines first marine reserve), the Philippines government has sense set up hundreds of other reserves in many other islands and locations, which will assuredly ensure the future for fish populations.

On top of that, they also passed a law, that allows local governances, to completely regulate all water activities, for up to 15km of their own shoreline, which should mean more regulations.

Are there problems with the system? Sure. Its of course not a perfect system yet, and that can be expected, especially in a developing country with few resources for land management or enforcement of laws. Some locals complain because the government now takes/keeps 25% of the money that comes from the park fees that all divers must pay before visiting the island. They also say that allocation of the other 75% isn’t always spent right, or even known.

But those issues can be fixed over time, and over all the locals are content now, and according to polls, fishermen say there are more fish now to catch, even with regulations. So by anyone’s measure, Apo Island, the Philippine’s very first marine sanctuary, is a huge success, and a model for future projects around the world.

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