The Pandora’s box of dynamite fishing was opened forty years ago on Apo Island, just a few miles off the coast of Negros Island. After only a few years of blasting, the delicate coral reef fringing the island was mostly reduced to a calcified rubble so that even today the sand on Apo’s beaches is made up of golf-tee sized bits of broken coral, worn smooth by the waves and resembling millions of tiny bones. It’s just another reminder of how far this island has progressed since then.
by Tommy Schultz
Jutting like a jagged, volcanic tooth out of the nearly 700-foot deep Tañon Strait, today Apo is home to about a thousand people—and nearly all of them are fishermen. I’m told that 25 years ago, the section of reef I snorkeled this afternoon was a barren underwater wasteland with flattened corals that offered no protection to the thousands of reef fish that depended on it for a home before the bombing began. It bore no resemblance to spectacular example of the ocean’s biodiversity it is today, home to even more species than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Apo’s recovery wasn’t an accident. The marine biologists from Silliman University’s Marine Lab in nearby Dumaguete had witnessed first-hand the devastation brought by dynamite fishing in the nearby communities on the coast, but for years had struggled to find a solution to reverse this worsening problem. Even though it is illegal to use dynamite for fishing, government attempts to reduce the demolition of the country’s fragile reefs have had difficulty.
But in 1982, a few pioneering scientists led by Dr. Angel Alcala from the Marine Lab approached the Apo Island community with the idea of creating a marine sanctuary there. Apo’s fishermen were catching fewer and fewer fish to feed their families and most of them realized they needed help.
Also, the Marine Lab was looking for a case study for the new science of marine sanctuaries, and after all the flattened reef of the proposed sanctuary site wasn’t used anymore since the fish were already dead. The community leaders held a vote, and it was agreed to establish one of the first marine sanctuaries in the Philippines.
At the time, the idea of a community-based sanctuary was a new idea and it took some getting used to—most people had grown up fishing wherever they wanted to whenever they wanted. For the first few years after the buoys went up to mark the area off-limits to fishing nobody really cared—there weren’t any fish to catch there anyway. But after five years of no fishing, a small school of jacks (a tuna species) returned to Apo.
This was big news since the jacks were among the first species to disappear when the bombs started dropping on the reef in the years before. Even though the fish weren’t fully grown, everyone noticed that they chose the protection of the sanctuary area for their home.
A few years later, after this newly-returned school of jacks had matured, they moved out of the marine sanctuary and used cobalt depths of Apo Island’s rocky Cogon Point as a feeding ground. The strong deep-sea currents brought a steady supply of small fish and marine animals for them to eat, and the fish grew rapidly from the steady supply of food. Cogon Point also happens to be the traditional fishing ground of the island’s fishermen—the sanctuary had begun to pay off already.
Today it’s been nearly 25 years since the establishment of Apo Island’s marine sanctuary. The small school of jacks that first arrived has multiplied into a shimmering wall of about 1,000. The adult fish return to the marine sanctuary each year to spawn and the juveniles still grow there until they’re large enough to move out into the open water. It’s like a living savings account that the island’s fishermen draw the interest from each year for a sustainable livelihood.
Depleted populations of green and hawksbill sea turtles are rebounding thanks to an innovative turtle breeding program that pays islanders a bounty of about protect the turtle eggs laid on the island’s beaches rather than dig the eggs up and sell them as an edible delicacy for just pennies. Rare species such as thresher sharks, bumphead parrotfish and Napoleon wrasse have also returned as the health of the ecosystem improves year after year.
The success of Apo Island’s Marine Sanctuary has changed the lives of the families who make their livings from fishing the reefs fringing the island, but the impact has been felt far beyond those thousand people lucky enough to live there. Every year the island is host to mayors, fishermen’s cooperatives and community organizations who come to see the now famous reef of Apo Island for themselves.
Like most people who experience the amazing biodiversity of the Marine Sanctuary in person, these visitors are awed by the brilliantly colored coral gardens inhabited by a psychedelic array of tropical fish and other marine animals. But while they’re drying off under the shade of Apo’s palm trees waving in the salty seabreeze many of them ask themselves why their communities can’t also be like Apo.
This is the real power of Apo Island. After seeing a healthy reef like Apo’s, some visitors find that they have a certain amount of jealousy or wounded pride when they realize their home reefs don’t look as good when compared to the undersea paradise of the Marine Sanctuary. Many of them return to their homes throughout the Philippines and establish sanctuaries of their own communities and follow Apo’s lead.
Although most of these sanctuaries are still in the vulnerable stage that comes with the first few years of telling fishermen who have fished the same waters for generations that they can’t fish there anymore because the area is protected, some of them are already showing the same signs of rebound that Apo’s reef had nearly 25 years ago.
Apo’s lesson is important: lasting improvement to any environment that has been destroyed or damaged has to come from the pride and sacrifice of the community that lives there. After all, if we don’t look after our own backyards, who will?
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