CAIRNS, Australia – When it comes to increasing fish catch and saving coral reefs, it may be a good idea to think small.
From the Philippines to Fiji, fishers and government officials have realized the benefits of setting up marine protected areas (MPAs) as small as 10 hectares in boosting local sources of livelihood, scientists and resource managers told a news conference here Wednesday.
Jovelyn Cleofe, executive director of the non-government Center for Empowerment and Resource Development, cited her group’s experience in Hinatuan in Surigao del Sur, where they helped establish seven marine reserves.
Since the mid-1990s, when the NGO started working in the area, coral reefs have improved from fair to excellent condition in some sites and the income of local fishers has increased as a result of higher fish catch outside no-take zones.
“Overall we’ve seen a tremendous benefit from local efforts,” agreed senior scientist Alan White from The Nature Conservancy, who has studied Philippine marine resources extensively.
He recalled that the government used to complain about the difficulty in managing marine resources at the national level, but soon realized that local officials could do a better job. Local governments have established more than 1,000 MPAs nationwide, resulting in a doubling of fish sizes and quantity, White said.
“There has been a tremendous impact in increase in fish catch and improving condition of coral reefs,” he added. Tourism has also benefited, as more travelers are drawn to beach areas that have intact resources.
Garry Russ, another scientist who has continuously monitored the condition of marine reserves in the Central Philippines, said latest studies showed that there are “unequivocally more fish in the system.”
He said a new study of tropical snappers released this year showed higher egg production, and research has shown that marine reserves contribute to higher numbers of fish in traditional fishing grounds.
In Fiji, program director Stacy Jupiter of the Wildlife Conservation Society said studies have noted a greater number of fish that are large enough to reproduce, producing more sources of protein for the local diet
She added that there is evidence of “increased reef resilience" when key areas are closed to fishing, such as higher population of “herbivores controlling macroalgae that destroy coral.”
Philippine laws are key to success
Two major laws, the Local Government Code and the Fisheries Code, helped coastal communities participate more actively in marine conservation, said Cleofe.
“Governance has become decentralized, and there’s a provision that NGOs can be part of local development councils and assist in planning,” she said.
From the Fisheries Code, the creation of Fisheries and Aquatic Resource Management Councils help coastal villagers to lobby for their interests and participate in making decisions about marine conservation issues, she added.
Cleofe also serves as the country coordinator for the Philippines of the Locally-Managed Marine Areas network, which is present in seven countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The network includes 30 MPAs in the Philippines:
7 in Hinatuan, Surigao Sur;
4 in Rizal Zambo Norte;
1 in Sultan Naga Dimaporo in Lanao Norte in Illana Bay;
1 in Dauis, Bohol;
3 in Maribojoc Bay in Bohol,
2 in Lobo, Batangas,
2 in Mondragon, Northern Samar,
1 in Candelaria,
9 in Romblon;
“People think the reserves are too small, so now they’re being networked and this is being done more formally so they can plan and have more impact,” said White.
“We need these ecological networks to see if there is connectivity among the sites,” he added. “Once the communities see benefits themselves, they will continue to manage it.”
Sustaining the marine reserves is a challenge for resource managers, observed Cleofe. In the LMMA network for instance, some communities run into problems when partner NGOS are unable to continue supporting them in doing crucial work such as monitoring of marine resources.
“Data monitoring ang unang nawawala, pero nagpa-patrol pa rin sila gamit ang sariling banca,” Cleofe said.
Volunteer fishers are trained in scuba diving and manta tow methods so they can collect data on the health of the coral reefs, fish abundance, mangroves, seagrass, and other resources. The network also provides livelihood courses to help augment the income of local fishers, she said.
In Hinatuan, the biggest marine reserve is a 220-hectare municipal sanctuary that was initiated by the local government, Cleofe said. A total of 476 hectares are designated as no-take zones in Hinatuan, she added.
According to Theresa Mundita Lim, director of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau, there are about 1,500 small marine protected areas in the Philippines. However, she added that some of them were set up arbitrarily and did not have any value as no-take zones, which are supposed to protect vital marine resources.
“That’s why science is needed,” she said. “Sometimes, the science is already there but the information is not relayed immediately to those who need them.”
Lim said one of the hurdles to overcome is the lack of national efforts to map the coral reefs in the Philippines, which is known to have the highest coral diversity in the world along with Indonesia.
She said the government is also grappling with the problem of “paper MPAs” that are covered by local ordinances but are not managed properly due to changes in local leadership.
“Our direction now is towards the rationalization of MPAs,” Lim said. – TJD, GMA News