Apo Reef Set to Reclaim Old Glory: park opens for tourism, closes for fishing
Apo’s reef fish can finally breathe easier now that a new resolution has been passed. Starting on the 2nd of October 2007, all extractive activities such as fishing, collection and harvesting of any life form will be completely banned from within the park.
Ordinance No. 01 was the Apo Reef Protected Area Managemant Board's (PAMB) first law for 2007 and declares the whole of Apo Reef a ‘no-take zone’ – to allow the reef and its residents ample time to recover from years of fishing.
The Jewel of Mindoro
Dwarfed only by Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Apo Reef Natural Park (ARNP) is situated 15 nautical miles west of the Philippine municipality of Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro. It is a major component of the earth’s coral triangle, spanning a total of 27,469ha – 15,792ha for the actual reef and 11,677ha as a protective buffer zone.
Just over 30 years ago, the park was one of the world’s premier diving destinations. Godofreido Mintu, Mayor of Sablayan and key to the park’s newfound protection, recalls, “Granted, everyone wanted to see its reefs, but it was much more than that. The entire coast was also a vast fishing ground. Even during the height of its destruction in the 1980s, you could still catch a basket-load of fish in minutes. It truly was the jewel of Mindoro.”
In biodiversity terms, the numbers are impressive. At least 385 species of fish, from the diminutive Bicolor Blenny to the spellbinding Emperor Angelfish, frolic amidst 190 coral, 26 algae and seven seagrass species. Larger residents and transients include the Manta Ray, Sperm Whale and various types of sea turtle. Sea birds too, are well represented, with at least 46 migratory and resident species, including the famed Nicobar Pigeon, roosting regularly on Apo’s three main islands.
Decades of Exploitation
Sadly, the 1970s brought dynamite, cyanide, muro-ami and strobe-fishing to Apo Reef. Says former DENR Protected Area asst. Superintendent Robert Duquil, “You would hear 25 to 30 dynamite blasts daily. In terms of destructive fishing methods, you name it – it was done here.” People from as far as Cebu and Navotas would set sail for Apo to reel in the bounty. In the 1980s the international diving community lost interest in the area, and destructive activities prevailed.
In 1994, the DENR finally came to assess the remaining coral cover. After almost two decades of blasting, it was just over 33%. The reef was finally decreed a Natural Park on the 6th of September 1996 by Presidential Proclamation No. 868, in lieu of its rich yet dwindling marine resources. But enforcement proved lax and illegal fishing methods persisted.
Explains Duquil, “Since we couldn’t catch all violators, a zoning system was set up to try to limit the damage. The 50 / 50 zoning system was finally implemented in 1999, allowing fishermen limited access to the reef’s eastern side. Unfortunately this didn’t stop them from harvesting from the western face.” But WWF Policy and Enforcement Officer Fredelito B. Palmes warns, “This should not be tolerated. Make no mistake, fishing in a natural park is not a public right. Rather, it is a privilege granted by the PAMB.“
A major blow was struck by Mother Nature herself when in 1998, a sudden El Niño outburst raised ocean temperatures, prompting a massive bleaching episode and the death of countless corals. The latest threat comes armed with 20 poisonous arms and consumes up to 30 square feet of live coral annually.
Most reefs in the Indo-Pacific host a small population of the coral-eating Crown-of-Thorns Starfish. Unfortunately, Apo is plagued by millions – probably due to a lack of natural predators like the Giant Triton, Napoleon Wrasse and Harlequin Shrimp. Though WWF's Sablayan team has taken great pains to collect thousands of the starfish, untold numbers remain.
Mayor Mintu recalls when several Peace Corps volunteers paid him a visit. Before they left they gave him a stern warning. “Apo Reef is a wonderful place. But if people keep on taking without giving anything back, very soon there will be nothing left but a sad, dead reef." With a little help from WWF, the Mayor formulated his plan.
Man with a Vision
At 71, Mayor Mintu is a man of action. “Once you cut-off or destroy the breeding area, your fish supply becomes finite. But when you protect their spawning grounds, fish – and therefore food – will be practically unlimited. If we are to restore this reef to its former glory, then we have to act now.” This he says, will be his final legacy to Mindoro.
WWF, the global conservation organization, took a lead role in facilitating the passage of the edict: a vigorous radio campaign spearheaded by WWF Sablayan Project Manager John Manul formed the crux of the effort. Manul and his team proved highly instrumental in drafting the ordinance, assisting and mobilizing the local government and communities and enlisting the support of the League of Municipal Mayors through Mayor Mintu. WWF has been working towards sustainable coastal practices for the Apo Reef Natural Park and the municipality of Sablayan since 2003.
Naturally some groups oppose the changes. “Where are we supposed to fish now?” asks Rasul Cabalyero, 36, of Sablayan. About one in ten fishermen are protesting the park’s closure.
Alternative sources for fishing are already being developed and installed. Giant fish aggregation devices, locally termed Payaw, have been installed a few kilometres from the coast. Says Mintu, “We just had eight Payaws installed. We’ll bolster them with 10 more.” The crude but effective devices are composed of a buoy, a counterweight, and anywhere from 10 to 15 giant coconut fronds. Algae growths on the decomposing fronds attract herbivores such as surgeon and rabbitfish, which then draw in larger predators.
Explains Duquil, “A single Payaw can yield at least 15-kg daily of good fish per boat. You can catch good-sized Tambakol, Tulingan, Galunggong and even Yellowfin Tuna on any given night.” Still some groups persist.
“There’s resistance now because people fear change,” explains Mintu. “But in the long run, they will benefit from this. Tourists will come back. Sablayan will once again be known worldwide. Mark my words – these protesters will thank us in a year’s time.”
The Future of Apo Reef
Tangible impacts of this method have already been felt in the nearby Tubbataha Reefs, where fish biomass practically doubled from 2004 to 2005.
WWF lauds men like Godofreido Mintu and Robert Duquil for ensuring the future of Apo Reef. Confesses Duquil, “You know, it’s a sad job to be assigned here. You’re stuck guarding a patch of reef with no one to talk to. You see so many (illegal) fishermen getting away with murder. It’s a great sacrifice, but with all honesty, it’s worth it. When I started in 1994, illegal fishing was the norm here. Thirteen years later and through the combined efforts of WWF, the LGU and the DENR, it’s almost totally gone.”
Signs of Life
In 2003, another assessment was made. Coral cover was back at 43%. In 2006 it rose to 52%. And if a 20% increase in 13 years isn’t good enough, bigger and bigger fish are returning. “A few months back, divers saw a school of over a hundred Scalloped Hammerhead sharks,” recalls Duquil. Groups of Manta and Eagle Rays have been sighted in ever-higher concentrations. Even giants like the Whaleshark and Sperm Whale are being seen regularly, an indicator that biodiversity levels are returning: and a reef’s biodiversity is a prime indicator of its resiliency – its ability to deal with future threats.
In time, the increased fish-stocks generated by the recovering reefs should be more than enough to seed outlying areas sustainably. Adds Mintu, “Nature has its own process of recovering, but it should be aided by human intervention. In the end, everyone will win.”
For more information, please contact:
Sablayan Project Manager, WWF-Philippines
Information, Education & Communications Officer, WWF-Philippines
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