Apo island is a small, steep volcanic island surrounded by a narrow band of fringing coral reefs. It is a short distance from Dauin on the large island of Negros and its waters are home to 650 species of fish and 400 species of corals. Like many coastal communities in the islands in the Indo-Pacific, fishing is the major livelihood for over half of the population. Apo Island’s 750 residents rely on the abundant marine life teeming in its waters but have carefully managed this resource for three decades.
Reef protection began informally in 1982 under a marine conservation program initiated by Silliman University in the Philippines. At this time, fish stocks had dwindled and project staff presented an idea of protecting the reefs to address this problem. One of the cornerstones of this proposal was to establish a sanctuary where all fishing was prohibited – a complete ‘no-take’ zone – and this idea was initially met with a lot of resistance. However, agreement was reached to begin the project in a small way and its progress was closely monitored. Within three years, the island community saw a marked improvement in fish catches and this gave the impetus to the island community to formally establish the sanctuary, declaring the waters surrounding the island up to 500m from shore as a marine reserve and critically, a portion of the south-eastern coast to be a totally protected area. Once the community could see the benefits of allowing fish stocks to regenerate, they were fully engaged in managing and defending their marine resources.
Another key initiative from the outset was getting fishermen to abandon destructive and illegal fishing methods such as muroami (reef pounding and netting), cyanide and dynamite fishing. Like many parts of Southeast Asia, these rampant and destructive fishing practices prevailed for a long time. Destructive fishing ceased completely around Apo Island by the mid-1990’s and since then the fringing reefs around the island have flourished. The marine habitat outside of the ‘no-take’ zone, but within the marine reserve, is termed a traditional fishing area where all destructive fishing methods are prohibited but traditional fishing methods such as hook and line and bamboo traps are permitted. The benefits to the local community from this marine reserve are increased fish catchers in less fishing time; larger predatory fish have increased eight fold in the reserve and species diversity has increased dramatically. Both green sea and hawksbill turtles frequent the sanctuary along with bumphead parrotfish, occasional whale sharks and large schools of jacks.
There are also a few rules related to diving and snorkeling – you must register and pay a small fee; gloves are not permitted and there is a limit of 15 divers including three dive guides. Boats must use the fixed moorings where provided and only use anchors in designated areas. Rolling over the side of the dive boat and descending on to these reefs is a joy to behold. It is obvious that the reefs have been protected just by looking at the density, size and variety of both hard and soft corals. Similarly, the variety of fish life is simply too long to list but includes a diversity of both reef dwelling and blue water species, including trevally, dogtooth tuna and schools of fusiliers.
I think the photographs illustrate more than words can describe but it is easy to see why Apo Island has become a model of marine reserve management worldwide, thanks to both the forward thinking and open-mindedness of its community and Silliman University’s centre of excellence in coastal resources management. With a thirty-year record of sustained marine protection existing alongside a fishing community’s needs, this is a living inspiration to other islands in the Philippines and beyond.
Diving the Philippines
The Philippines is an archipelago of over 7000 islands set in the blue waters of the Indo Pacific. It forms the northern part of the coral triangle considered to be the centre of marine biodiversity in the tropics. However, its neighbours Indonesia and Papua New Guinea seem to get more attention as diving destinations. This is perhaps due to the destructive fishing practices of years gone by and the perception that the reefs were not what they should be.
I travelled to the Philippines with Dutch operated Worldwide Dive and Sail and dived from their liveaboard boat, Philippine Siren. This was an excellently run diving operation and a very varied eight-day itinerary from Malapasqua at the northern end of Cebu Island to the southern part of the archipelago, known as the Visayas. While the bizarre and wonderful marine life of muck diving is well known in the area south of Dumaguete city, I was both surprised and amazed at some of the scenic reef and wall dives that we experienced – they were truly world class.
The "holy grail" of Philippine diving is Tubbataha reefs, a strictly protected marine area well offshore that is only diveable three months of the year. Both the dive guides onboard and other divers on the trip testified to the pristine nature of these reefs and how it is one to put high on your bucket list.