Support for Seascapes
Photo by Jürgen Freund.

by Molly Bergen

For a fisherman whose livelihood depends on the size of his daily catch, the establishment of a nearby “no-take zone” would seem to be a very unwelcome development, yet thanks to extensive consultations, children’s books, a theatre group and increased fishing yields, the recent expansion of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Pacific Ocean’s Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape has seen widespread local support.

Why? Because although it seems counterintuitive, protecting marine resources actually results in improvements to the local fish catch, and a multi-faceted educational campaign by Conservation International (CI), the Philippine government and other partners is encouraging a greater public understanding and appreciation of the positive impact that protected areas can have on local livelihoods.

A Vital Link

The Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape is the most diverse marine environment in the world, encompassing 900,000 square kilometers (more than 347,000 square miles) of coral reefs, mangrove forests, seagrass meadows and large stretches of open ocean. Located between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, the seascape provides food and livelihoods for 40 million people.

Within the seascape, the Cagayan Ridge Corridor is home to a variety of sea turtle, shark and cetacean species like the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus). The corridor is part of a support system crucial to the vitality of the larger seascape, with strong currents dispersing fish eggs and larvae across the corridor. Despite the region’s ecological significance, illegal fishing is a major threat to the longevity of its waters.

Greater Protection

In order to combat overuse of the region’s marine resources, the Philippine government has voiced its support for expanded conservation initiatives. In 2006, the country’s president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, signed the nation’s first executive order for biodiversity conservation, paving the way for expanded protected areas. That same year, the president also increased the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—to almost triple its original size, bringing 968 square kilometers (374 square miles) under protection.

Although “giving up” some traditional fishing grounds for the creation of the Tubbataha Reefs protected area entailed considerable sacrifice for the people of Cagayancillo municipality, they continued to illustrate their commitment to marine conservation by creating five new MPAs in 2009—Bonbon, Calusa, Manucan, Mampio and Santa Cruz—totaling 232 hectares (573 acres). The government also expanded four other MPAs—Nusa, Talaga, Balabag, and Cawili—by a total of 350 hectares (865 acres). All newly protected territories are no-take zones.

CI has played an integral supporting role in the MPA expansion as we strive to protect crucial ocean corridors in order to maximize conservation benefits.

Spreading the Word

The community support for these new protected areas reveals a growing public understanding of the benefits that conservation can have on income and livelihood. A municipality official reported that as a result of existing MPAs, fish catch increased from four kilograms (nine pounds) to 8-10 kilograms (18-22 pounds) per hour, consequently raising household income from 2,800 pesos to 4,200 pesos.

Last year, CI used a variety of means to spread the word.

  • Extensive meetings were held to ensure that the communities were fully aware of the plans to establish the MPAs, as well as the benefits that can be gained from their implementation. These meetings also included a presentation of the results of CI’s research on Cagayancillo’s rich marine biodiversity, which heightened the community’s appreciation and sense of pride about their resources.
  • An advanced law enforcement training workshop for government officials was organized in partnership with the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, Environmental Legal Assistance Center and WWF. Increased training has helped to triple the number of enforcers in recent years, from 29 in 2002-2006 up to 106 since 2007.
  • Eleven local people were trained to be new MPA managers, learning valuable communication and facilitation skills which will help them become community conservation leaders and provide for their families.
  • An Ecological Theater Caravan performed in five villages in Cagayancillo, using the entertainment to increase community awareness, appreciation and support for the local network of MPAs. More than 1,000 people attended performances.
  • In order to inspire a new generation of conservationists, CI published several bilingual children’s books about the complex relationship between humans and the seascapes they inhabit.

The more people know about the ocean and its irreplaceable benefits, the easier its protection will be. In a recent interview, Mayor Joel Carceler of Cagayancillo observed that educational efforts have already strengthened coastal law enforcement. “Establishing and strengthening our MPAs are very important. Our people’s livelihoods depend on the health and richness of the ocean, so we know that we have to do our part in protecting our marine resources,” he said.

As a vital part of the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape, conservation efforts in Cagayancillo and Tubbataha Reefs have important implications for the rest of the seascape. As CI embarks on an ambitious new plan to scale up marine conservation efforts across the oceans, we will continue to expand these regional initiatives onto a global level.

Photo by Jürgen Freund.

This article originally appeared at