Beyond fun dives
Photo by: Rina Bernabe

by Rina Bernabe and Pacifico Beldia II

It was a normal summer day in the town of Mabini Batangas, one of the Philippines’ most popular diving destinations. The scorching heat was in full swing, the dive resorts were doing brisk business and boats criss-cross along the coast carrying divers eager for underwater adventure. But on that day, two of those diver-filled boats had a different purpose: instead of diving for sheer fun and adventure, these divers are going underwater to survey coral, fish, and invertebrate species in an effort to determine the health of the reefs.

The group was composed of representatives from seven municipalities in the Verde Island Passage (VIP), a priority marine biodiversity corridor in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape. They came from various sectors (local governments, Bantay Dagat Volunteers, private sector members of MPA management councils and coastal resource management workers) and were gathered together to undergo training on reef monitoring. For this activity, Conservation International Philippines has partnered with Reef Check, a global organization which advocates simple reef monitoring techniques for resource managers, SCUBA diving enthusiasts, and stakeholders who are non-biologists or non-marine scientists. Reef Check’s methodology adheres to strict standards and protocols to ensure the quality of the data and focuses on deriving trends of reef degradation caused by humans and other sources of threats such as crown-of-thorn outbreaks, coral bleaching and coral diseases.

“It’s very good as a monitoring methodology for local governments, where often the expertise in coral reef monitoring is limited,” says Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan, Course Director of Reef Check Philippines. He said that in time, it is hoped that local governments in Verde Island Passage will be able to conduct regular coral reef monitoring and incorporate the results in their official reports, such as annual State of the Coasts reports. “This can also be a step towards encouraging accountability in their respective areas,” he says, since investing in the monitoring also means that the local governments have set certain goals in maintaining or protecting the coral reefs in their areas.

Lorie Sollestre, who heads the coastal management initiatives of Batangas Province, said that she is interested in forming a provincial coral reef monitoring team. “This training is very useful for us, especially for monitoring our newly-declared marine protected areas (MPAs) in the province.”

From the other side of the Verde Island Passage, Lyn Alcañices, Coastal Resource Program Officer of Oriental Mindoro Province, has similar plans for forming coral reef monitoring teams in their province. “We sent non-divers to this training, but we’re committing to have them certified as divers soon, and add a few more persons to be trained as well so that they will become a team that will survey our MPAs,” she said.

One of the Oriental Mindoro trainees, Hilario Bacay, believes that aside from generating data, reef monitoring results can also be a useful tool in persuading communities to protect their marine resources. In his area, he said that some fishers resist proposals to establish new MPAs. “The information from the monitoring should be disseminated to the communities…if they can see how beautiful their reefs are, they can be convinced of the need to protect,” he said.

Aside from local government employees, Dr. Licuanan also believes that there is great potential in getting sports divers to assist in reef monitoring. He hopes that in the future, these divers will also be willing to be trained in coral reef monitoring and volunteer their services to local governments. With thousands of divers flocking to the Mabini area each year, this group represents a considerable force that can be tapped for conservation work.

Home to nearly 16,000 hectares of locally managed MPAs and dubbed as the “center of the center of marine shorefish biodiversity in the world,” VIP’s coral reefs certainly have a lot to offer. The corridor supports fisheries, tourism, shipping, and transport industries, among others, and hosts 26 coastal municipalities and cities. Encouraging and equipping local stakeholders to take responsibility for the health of their marine ecosystems is an important part of CI’s work in the corridor. With training on mangrove and seagrass assessments also scheduled to happen soon, work continues in building a corps of involved, equipped, and dedicated professionals working for conservation.

The success of coastal and marine resource conservation in VIP rests upon the shoulders of each and every stakeholder. It may be too much to expect that from this group of trainees will start another layer of hope for coral reef conservation but the mere glow at their faces after each field exercise shows a different kind of appreciation and joy which can be compared to a child’s glimpse at a feeding bottle. They may only have the slightest idea of what coral reefs are made of and how fishes affect their existence, but after the training they will surely appreciate everything that they encounter underwater. That bleached corals signify imbalance and that COTs could be hiding under the patches of recently killed corals. That rocks are not just barren surfaces, but that urchins and fishes that graze there help maintain these seemingly void spaces for baby corals to settle. Among the many things that they have learned and after almost a week of enduring the heat of summer, it is hoped that they bring home with them and nurture the thought that they can now be a part of a global monitoring to help save this fragile ecosystem.

Photos by Rina Bernabe