In the central Philippines lies the small but remarkable Apo Island.This conch-shaped haven is embraced by clear cerulean waters that lull the earth with gentle tides. In the air
floats a tropical breeze that ferries the scent of salty ocean water through a forest of lush mangroves and palms. Impressive geological formations pose on ivory sand beaches, expressing the
seniority and might of their rugged faces before the sea. Every morning the sun greets the island with a scintillating light on the watery horizon; a balmy day follows with yet another
appreciated visit as time escorts the sun to the west. When night sets in thousands of flickering stars appear, bestowing an elegant silhouette upon the swaying ocean waves and tree leaves.
An enchanting underwater realm lives under the serene surface of Apo Island’s sea. Flourishing reefs fringe the island, supporting a living, breathing kaleidoscope of over 1,000 species of
corals, anemones, sponges, and fish. Warm sunset colors mixed with greens and turquoise are splattered on the reef ahead of an alluring, deep blue background that sparks a sense of mystery and
amazement. The ebb and flow of the waves ripples through anemones like wind through long, golden grass. Small rushing fish flit in and out of crevices as sea turtles, rays, and shoals of
tuna explore this picturesque kingdom of harmonious existence.
On the flat south side of the island lives a small fishing community of about 800 individuals. The residents are characterized by dark hair, russet skin and faces with full, pink lips and shining
brown eyes. Their small, modest village consists of raised wooden cottages with palm frond roofs, each connected by worn pathways hugged by tropical plants and short wooden
fences. Neighbors relax on shady porches while the sound of friendly conversation and laughing children travels through the air, often accompanied by the sound of crowing roosters.
Toward the shore are several outrigger canoes called “bancas,” ready to launch out to sea for another successful day of fishing. Apo has no crime, begging, or noisy cars of any
kind. It is the ideal getaway for anyone.
With all to consider, it is sometimes difficult to imagine life on Apo Island being any different than it is now.Such a peaceful, tropical paradise seems like an unlikely place for
problems to strike. However, there was once a very unfortunate time when Apo Island, along with many other Philippine Islands, confronted a complete economic and environmental collapse.
The emergence of new fishing methods in the 1960s to 1970s began to endanger the long-term existence of Apo and several Philippine fishing villages. Each of the new methods introduced
were more efficient in collecting fish but extremely detrimental to the habitats they were used in. Cyanide, which stuns fish and kills the surrounding coral, was first sprayed on reefs
1962. The Japanese practice of muro-ami found its way to the Philippines soon after, which involves pounding coral vigorously with rocks to flush fish into nets. Another method of
fishing, called dynamite fishing, includes throwing small bombs into the water to cause an explosion effective enough to rupture a fish’s swim bladder and kill them instantly. Nevertheless,
each of these practices gained in popularity.
Tragic changes in the environment immediately followed the introduction of the new destructive fishing methods. Many places around Apo were left as rubble, causing many species of fish
and other marine animals to suffer from loss of habitat and food sources. The surrounding polyp city was reduced to ruins; dead, decaying graveyards of coral skeletons and sunken fish corpses
lay scattered along the seafloor, and the once colorful reefs were rendered grey and livid. The world under the waves had never appeared so lifeless and bleak.
At first, these new fishing practices had benefited Apo’s village in that it increased the amount of fish caught at a time. However, the surplus of food was short-lived; fish stocks were
eventually depleted to the point where one or two fish were caught a day. Local fishermen became increasingly frustrated as they were forced to either use more poison and explosives to catch
fish or wander to exploit other locations. Soon the local government became concerned with and the matter. Laws banning destructive fishing practices were soon implemented, but
unfortunately were not enforceable. A vicious cycle was set in motion, and Apo’s future looked very grim.
Meanwhile, an experiment was in progress on the nearby uninhabited Sumilon Island. A crew of researchers headed by Dr. Angel Alcala from Negros Oriental’s Silliman University had initiated a
“no-take” reserve in Sumilon’s waters in which an area was fully protected from any means of fishing. The goal was to see how effective a reserve would be in restoring reefs. Sure enough,
a few years passed and the protected reef showed significant signs of improvement in the number and population of species. Life began to thrive underwater once again; schools of fish burst at
the seams of the reserve, and the spill-over helped to replenish the nearby waters with life. Dr. Alcala realized that this solution needed to be introduced to local fishermen in order for Apo
to thrive once again.
When the implementation of a marine reserve was first suggested to the islanders, they were very skeptical and met the proposal with a lot of resistance. Such an action was not familiar to
their culture, and they were afraid it would create even more difficulty for them. They needed to be assured that this would not be the case. Several of Apo’s residents were soon escorted
to Sumilon Island, where the researchers took them scuba diving and snorkeling to show them what their reefs could look like once allowed to regenerate in peace.They were amazed at
what they saw. Coral, which they had previously thought to be a colorful rock, was moving and eating. Thousands of polyps stretched out their arms to grasp moving particles of food, and
retreated into their casings when approached. Small, colorful butterfly-fish along with bizarre frogfish and sea slugs were seen using the coral as a neighbor and home. Camouflaged
seahorses and scorpion-fish showed signs of hidden life among the reef. The world under the waves proved to be a truly remarkable habitat worth protecting and preserving.
After seeing the underwater world in its natural state at Sumilon Island, pictures were shown to the islanders of the severely damaged reefs surrounding their own island. There was a notable
difference, and after three years of dialogue between the islanders and university staff, the islanders agreed that they had to try to help restore Apo’s reefs. With the help of Dr. Alcala and
his team, a community-based marine reserve was established in the surrounding waters up to 500 meters from the shore in which only traditional fishing methods were permitted such as hook and line,
spear fishing, and bamboo traps. Within the marine reserve, a “fish sanctuary” was set aside where no fishing was allowed at all. The once skeptical island community abided by the
reserve’s fishing policy and took turns patrolling the sanctuary from the beach and outer borders.
Without the use of cyanide and explosives, coral was able to recover around the island and provide for a higher-standing ecosystem. The protected area had created a haven in which fish could
breed, rest, and feed in safely while their habitat improved. Even nesting sea turtles started to visit the island. Within only five years, the entire island’s fish stocks began rising
due to all-around habitat recovery and spillover from the reserve into fishing zones. Fishermen were able to catch substantial amounts of fish closer to the island, often catching three times
as much fish as before. Apo’s success also benefited neighboring islands in that the amount of biomass and species diversity had skyrocketed in the surrounding areas. In the late 1990s,
the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) declared the island a nationally protected area, and in 1996 the villagers won an award for the “best managed reef in the Philippines.” The
entire village was very pleased with their accomplishment, and felt more motivated than ever to protect their valuable habitats.
The reserve not only supplied food; it spurred a new source of income helped the island’s economy prosper and grow. The new marine reserve quickly began to attract visitors to the island from
all over the world, which improved the economy greatly. The tourists paid fees to explore the regenerated reefs and to stay at the island, and also made generous contributions to the
village. Men and women were able to engage in business by selling woven blankets, dresses, and souvenirs, while others worked in the dive shop or one of the two small hotels. Younger residents
were no longer restricted to stay on the island their whole lives; with more money they were able to go to college, get married, and start working in other parts of the Philippines. Those who
left would oftentimes send money back to Apo. Most of the profits were used for education, electricity, waste disposal, water treatment, and of course the protection of the reefs. The
future for Apo now looks promising and bright for upcoming generations
Neighboring fishing villages also came to see what Apo was doing that brought about their sudden prosperity. They too learned the benefits of protecting and preserving their resources,
and were inspired to do the same. In fact, since the establishment of Apo Island’s reserve, about 563 similar marine reserves have been created in the Visayas region; another 500 have been
established in other parts of the Philippines. Today, people from all over the world travel to Apo Island to discover how a community can manage their natural resources while still utilizing them.
Apo is just one of about 7,000 Philippine islands, but it was able to make a world of a difference. The true story of the island’s success continues to inspire groups worldwide. Apo is
now one of the world’s most popular community-based marine sanctuaries in the world, and hopes to expand its sanctuary’s territories.They even set up marine education programs for their
youth, so that sustainable fishing, which is now a part of their culture, can continue in the future. Their hard work and dedication has made a difference for many other communities like itself,
and shows other societies the rewards of working together for a common goal.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”-Margaret Meade
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