The Coral Triangle Conservancy applies a holistic, integrated solution that answers the twin problems of providing sustainable livelihood for the local residents and repairing and protecting our deeply threatened marine environment. This model provides a scalable solution to safeguard the future of the Philippine’s isolated coastal communities as well as its environment.
This Policy Idea feature derives from PAMPUBLIKO’s interview with Scott Countryman, Managing Director, Coral Triangle Conservancy (CTC), on April 21, 2016, and makes use of CTC’s research and writing made available on ree.ph
Establish marine protected areas (MPAs) and ecotourism to restore our depleted marine life and bring increased, sustainable income to rural coastal communities
“The World Wildlife Fund estimated in 2012 that only 1% of the coral reefs in the Philippines remain in pristine condition. Equally urgent, less than 1% of Philippine coral reefs are located within designated ‘no take’ zones and even the most remote coral reefs are now being overfished and destroyed by destructive fishing methods.”1
The Coral Triangle Conservancy, a Philippine-based, not-for-profit venture’s goals are to end overfishing and to create ecosystem-sized conservation areas through networks of locally protected marine areas. In this, it seeks crucially to align its conservation activity with the needs of local communities. While working to increase awareness of the factors and activities destroying Philippine coral reefs, CTC is also leading efforts to establish sustainable, environmentally friendly businesses that create economic incentives for conservation.
With three sites—in Batangas, Bicol, and Palawan—CTC applies a holistic, integrated solution that answers the twin problems of providing sustainable livelihood for the local residents and repairing and protecting our deeply threatened marine environment. Operating across a range of sites in terms of population density and fishing pressure, their model provides a scalable solution to safeguard the future of the Philippine’s isolated coastal communities as well as its biodiversity.
“I traveled all around the Philippines from 2001-2009 on my live aboard ‘Yanca’ (a yacht-banca hybrid) and saw most of the Philippine islands, staying in some places for months at a time. I found so many extraordinarily beautiful places with amazing people and fantastic hospitality all over this incredible country that has become such a home to me. Over the years since then, we have found that the majority of these spots are now mostly destroyed from a combination of overfishing, land based pollution, and destructive fishing techniques,” Scott Countryman, Managing Director of CTC, told PAMPUBLIKO. “That was a wake up-call.”
“I’ve lived by and with ocean life all over the world—from Micronesia to Mexico and Costa Rica to the Azores islands, even working for the U.S. Coast Guard licensed Captain doing commercial fishing—and I’ve seen rich ecosystems full of abundance, with seabirds, bait and large predators crashing the surface for miles around, wildness teeming and soaring overhead, and it’s amazing how devoid of life the Philippines is in comparison,” he recounts. “It became obvious to me when I was living on a boat, traveling around the country’s coasts, that somebody needs to do something about this, that the government needs to do something about this.”
Everyone raves of the amazing biodiversity of the Philippines, and it truly is amazing—but compared to the other places I’ve seen in the world, the loss of biomass in the Philippines from relentless human pressure is simply tragic.
“I’ve visited beautiful, exotic places all over the world,” Scott says. “Everyone raves of the amazing biodiversity of the Philippines, and it truly is amazing—but compared to the other places I’ve seen in the world, the loss of biomass in the Philippines from relentless human pressure is simply tragic.”
People have had to turn to other forms of income and to use more destructive methods just to obtain small quantities of fish to sell or to eat. In the wake of the People Power Revolution, the succeeding administrations devolved power and shifted authority down to the local municipalities. Barangay captains assumed authority to issue fishing and logging permits for personal gain—“that was the acceleration of the end for the natural world of the Philippines,” Scott laments. “Traveling around for nine years, we didn’t once see a single police or coast guard patrol boat, but we saw illegal fishing every day—you could hear the dynamite, see big fishing boats netting manta rays and turtles. In provincial fish markets all forms of rare and beautiful apex predator bush meat was on display for sale.”
Fish less to catch more—ecotourism can yield incomes up to 20 times higher than those from a severely depleted hook-and-line fishery.
What conservationists who love the ocean, but who have never lacked for food, want from the ocean is often very different from what those who live by and from the ocean need. Therefore, to succeed, conservation projects must also create sustainable and environmentally friendly businesses from which local communities can derive their income without the requirement of advanced skills. Additionally, those incomes need to be higher than what they would gain through illegal fishing.
Through CTC’s research and experience, the organization has found that marine protected areas (MPAs) in the form of large, no take, isolated, and enforced coral and fish sanctuaries achieve all these goals when combined with eco-tourism. The eco-tourism industry stands to offer far more money on a per-day-basis and far greater job security than the boom-and-bust cycles of small-scale farming and fishing can offer isolated coastal communities.
The Coral Triangle Conservancy believes that “effectively managed MPAs represent the best resilience for coral reefs when faced with ill effects of climate change (coral bleaching, ocean acidification, extreme weather events) and the most destructive anthropogenic forces.”2 In reducing local threats to reefs, including recreational damage, unsustainable coastal development, watershed contamination, unsustainable fishing practices, lack of education and awareness, reefs become better able to combat the large-scale threats brought about by a warming world. “Studies show that even adjacent areas benefit from increased vitality and ‘spillover’ from the protected areas.”3
“These must be ecosystem sized marine protected areas, where large fish can swim and not get caught in nets, where people recognize spawning areas and leave them room and the time to reproduce. If you designate these large areas as ‘no take’ zones, with an absolute prohibition against fishing and strict enforcement, the fish will recover,” Scott promises. “You will see a many times increase in biomass in 5-8 years.”
Allowing the biomass to recover through large ecosystem-sized protected areas not only replenishes the stock in that area, but once that area becomes crowded, the life spreads out to replenish the areas outside this protected zone. So the local fishermen stand to gain too. Indeed, while in the late 1970s, a fisherman in Batangas could catch on average 13 kilograms of fish per day, now that fisherman catches on average less than 1 kilogram per day.
“We’re down to single digit percentage points for coral reefs around the Philippines in excellent condition and important food fishes such as groupers, jacks, parrot fish, and more are increasingly becoming regionally extinct in some areas and rarer and rarer in others. We want people to know this and to feel a sense of urgency,” Scott says.
The goal in commercial fishing has been to catch the greatest number of fish possible each year, but local and national regulatory bodies have miserably failed to manage fisheries. “We’ve been going to the bank and dipping deep into our capital reserves every year, when could have lived off its interest forever. Instead we’re now down to last 5% in our natural asset bank account and even then we’re quick to try to catch and sell the last few iconic species remaining.” He points to the example of the thresher shark in Malapascua. “Think about how much revenue that shark has created for Cebu’s tourism industry,” he says. “What that shark meat sells for in the local market isn’t a thousandth of what they’re worth alive in the water over decades.”
The government has the power to replicate the CTC’s work on a far larger, national scale, and to act with the greatest speed and efficiency to save our threatened ecosystems. With a model ready to hand, all that is required is sufficient political will.
To apply the CTC’s approach to conservation and development, the government must:
- Determine baselines for coral reef health in areas of high biodiversity, so that clear goals and measures for marine health are set
- Pinpoint local factors killing coral reefs
- Establish managed networks of MPAs in partnership with local fishing communities
- Enforce existing regulations consistently and strictly, not allowing commercial fisheries to skirt prohibitions
- Work with local communities to increase awareness, change behaviors, and involve the residents in the shared work of environmental conservation
- Establish education programs, perhaps most easily accomplished through a mobile learning setting, to provide basic literacy, teach marine conservation, and spread sustainable practices that the students can share with their own communities
- Bring to these rural communities positive, durable, non-destructive means to earn a living
- Promote responsible ecotourism in these areas through special incentives
- Train and equip the local communities to work in these industries