Spotted: Bamboo sharks in Nasugbu marine protected areas

Left to right:  the brown-banded bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium punctatum) and the white-spotted bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium plagiosum) documented in the marine protected areas of Nasugbu, Batangas. Photos contributed by Wesley Caballa.

Marine protected areas (MPA) are established in order to safeguard habitats and serve as refuge for marine creatures that provide food and other ecosystem services to humans, and such is proving to be the case for the MPAs of Nasugbu, Batangas.

In recent months, local MPA managers have documented the presence of at least three shark species in Pico de Loro or Cutad Marine Reserve, one of the four MPAs established by the Nasugbu municipality together with its partners, Hamilo Coast, SM Foundation and the Punta Fuego Foundation in 2009. 

The shark sightings were documented by Wesley Caballa, one of the proponents of MPA establishment in the area and the Senior Manager for Sports and Recreation of Hamilo Coast, a private sector partner that assists the local government in managing the MPAs in Nasugbu.

Caballa was able to photograph juveniles of brown-banded bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium punctatum) and the white-spotted bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium plagiosum) in the shallow waters of the marine reserve, while a third shark species, a juvenile thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus), was found beached and later died in spite of efforts to guide it back to sea. 

According to Nonoy Beldia, MPA specialist of Conservation International, bamboo shark species need undisturbed habitats so it can lay its eggs and the juveniles can grow up undisturbed. “The observance of the bamboo sharks in the MPA is an indication of improved health of the ecosystem and significant decrease in fishing pressure,” he said.

The global populations of the three shark species have been observed to be decreasing. The two bamboo sharks, which are also targeted for home aquariums, are classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN or International Union for Conservation of Nature, while the thresher shark has a higher threat category of Vulnerable.

Nasugbu is located in the Verde Island Passage (VIP), the 1.14-million hectare stretch of water shared by the provinces of Batangas, Oriental and Occidental Mindoro, Marinduque and Romblon. It is also popularly known as the world’s center of marine shorefish biodiversity.

Nasugbu’s MPAs, which are overseen by a multi-sectoral management council, form part of the Verde Island Passage MPA Network. Currently, there are 69 MPAs from coastal municipalities of Batangas and Mindoro that comprise the MPA Network.

According to the local government of Nasugbu, the MPAs are being actively guarded by the municipality’s Bantay Dagat (Sea Watch) group, which is supported by the Hamilo Coast, the SM Foundation and the Punta Fuego Foundation and has stepped up its patrolling efforts since the MPAs were established. “They have also become much more active and more involved in other activities when it comes to protection and conservation of the marine ecosystem,” local officials from the Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO) said.

The local officials added that there have also been less illegal fishing violations within the vicinity of the MPAs as appreciation for conservation grew among the local fishing communities. “It has not been an easy process to establish these MPAs, as we had to consult with and build consensus among the local communities,” explained the MENRO. “In time, however, we have seen that the fisherfolks have been very understanding about why portions of the sea must be protected and conserved.”

Since the establishment of the MPAs in Nasugbu, locals have reported an increase in the abundance and size of fishes in the protected areas. “Fish are getting big in terms of size as well,” said Caballa. “Fish species not found before the declaration of MPAs can now be observed like the school of jacks, various species of snappers, sweetlips and groupers in Pico de Loro/Cutad Cove.”

“It often takes years before the positive impacts of MPA establishment are directly felt by the local communities” said Beldia, “but in the case of Nasugbu, these impacts are already manifested by the recovery of fish population which is due to protection and the unique characteristics of the marine environment where the MPAs were designated.”

Beldia said that Nasugbu’s coastal and marine resources are a vital segment of the biological interconnectedness among MPAs in Verde Island Passage and that its potential to contribute to fisheries and the conservation of biodiversity in general is immense.

“The positive impacts that are already being felt validates that the MPAs in Nasugbu where established in areas with the greatest recovery potential, and that the efforts of local stakeholders’ in enforcing fishery laws is important to sustain these gains,” said Beldia.

In time, the local government is also planning to increase the number MPAs in the municipality, ensuring greater benefits for the local communities and the VIP as a whole.