Thursday, October 4, 2007

Apo Reef now a ‘no-take zone’

Today is the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the environment and there is great news for Apo Reef, the world’s second largest and known as the jewel and pride of Mindoro. The reef is second in size to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Oct. 2 marked the total ban on fishing in Apo Reef. This is to ensure that the reef and the residents who live in the area could recover from the effects of overfishing and exploitation for nearly 30 years. No less than the World Wildlife Fund made this announcement.

This decision was not reached overnight. Negotiations went on for years. And now Apo Reef will be open only for tourism. Well, the question now is, where will the fishermen who depend on Apo Reef for their livelihood go next?

According to WWF, one in 10 fishermen is opposed to the park’s closure but the local government is installing alternative ways. WWF says that giant fish aggregation devices, locally called payaw, have been installed a few kilometres from the coast. Eight have been installed and 10 more will be in place later.

The payaw is a crude but effective device. It is composed of a buoy, a counterweight and 10 to 15 coconut fronts. The algae growth on the decomposing fronds attracts herbivores such as surgeon and rabbitfish that can draw in larger predators. A single payaw can yield at least 15 kilos of good fish per boat. Tambakol, tulingan, galunggong and even yellowfin tuna can be part of the catch.

“There’s resistance now because people fear change,” Sablayan mayor Godofreido Mintu told WWF. “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.” Yes, we will be watching.

My knee jerk reaction is to take the side of the disadvantaged locals but if this move promises something better for them and the next generation, it is worth a try. 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 first law passed by Apo Reef’s Protected Area Managemant Board (PAMB) 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.

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. In the 1980s, when destruction was at its worst, basketloads of fish could still turn up in minutes.

Apo Reef’s biodiversity is impressive. At least 385 species of fish such as the diminutive Bicolor Blenny (Ecsenius bicolor), the couch-sized Napoleon Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), 190 coral, 26 algae and seven seagrass species. Larger residents and transients include the Manta Ray (Manta birostris), Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus) 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 (Caloenas nicobarica), roosting regularly on Apo’s three main islands.

The 1970s ushered in dynamite, cyanide, muro-ami and strobe-fishing to Apo Reef. Former DENR Protected Area assistant superintendent Robert Duquil recalled: “You would hear 25 to 30 dynamite blasts daily.” Fishermen from far places trooped to the area. In the 1980s the international diving community lost interest and destructive activities went on unabated.

It was in 1994 that the Department of Environment and natural Resources (DENR) assessed the remaining coral cover of 33 percent. Presidential Proclamation No. 868 decreed the reef a natural park in 1996. But enforcement was difficult. Zoning was enforced and allowed limited access to the eastern part. But the western area was not spared. Then Mother Nature herself struck back in 1998 with El Niño that raised ocean temperatures, a massive bleaching episode and the death of corals.

WWF Information Officer Gregg Yan says: “Most reefs in the Indo-Pacific host a small population of the coral-eating Crown-of-Thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci). Unfortunately, Apo is plagued by millions—probably due to a lack of natural predators like the Giant Triton, Napoleon Wrasse and Harlequin Shrimp. Last week we collected over a thousand. But if their predators aren’t protected, the Crown-of-Thorns will be here to stay.”

WWF had a lead role in the passage of the decree through a radio campaign spearheaded by WWF Sablayan Project Manager John Manul. WWF has been advocating sustainable coastal practices for the Apo Reef Natural Park and Sablayan town since 2003. The nearby Tubbataha Reefs have benefited from such practices. Marine life doubled from 2004 to 2005.

In 2003, another assessment was made on Apo. Yan says coral cover was back at 43%. In 2006 it rose to 52%. Bigger fish are returning. Yan is thrilled. “A few months back, divers saw a school of over a hundred Scalloped Hammerhead sharks. Groups of Manta and Eagle Rays have been sighted in bigger concentrations. Giants like the Whaleshark and Sperm Whale are seen regularly. This is proof that biodiversity levels are better. Biodiversity is a prime indicator of a reef’s resiliency and its ability to deal with future threats.”

Nature can’t recover fast on its own. Human intervention is key.