If I ride my bike one and a half hours across mountain ridge-tops, covered in coconut trees, overlooking beautiful aquamarine ocean water, I’d arrive at one of my favorite snorkeling spots: a calm remote inlet with beautiful boulders of coral reef and massive fields of foliose corals.
A fish here seems to have countless places to hide, swim, and play. And yet I struggle to find any fish. A small school of razorfish turns quickly to the side and backs away.
I think I catch a glimpse of a grouper’s tail, but it disappeared so quickly it may have only been a hawkfish. Almost all the fish I see are less than 10 centimeters in size.
Then, I reach a section of coral not nearly as beautiful. This colony has been entangled in fishing nets.
If I were able to remove it all, I’d guess it could fill a truck bed. Just then, I hear the hum of an approaching fishing boat and look up to see a fisherman tossing out his large net.
“Wag muna!!” I want to yell, “Stop! Don’t!” This coral reef, more than any I have seen, needs to be protected. Its populations have been severely overfished, and yet the habitat remains largely intact with the potential to support a recovery. If this reef continues to be fished both the coral and its inhabitants will surely cease to exist in a matter of years.
I am a US Peace Corps volunteer assigned to work in the Philippines as a specialist in coastal resource management. My office requested a volunteer to assist with the establishment of three large marine protected areas (MPAs) within our province.
MPAs are the primary tool for coral reef conservation and marine fisheries management. The idea is to designate a section of coral reef habitat off limits to fishing, a no-take zone. This protected area is then a safe haven for fish to breed and grow, replenishing fish stocks and improving coral reef habitat.
Within the past 50 years the Philippines has seen dramatic declines in both fish catch per unit effort and the health of coral reefs. Overfishing is a major part of this problem. Hence an MPA may be the saving grace for many coastal communities. And yet, I falter just a little as I try to explain this to a fisherman. I can see from the children that run half naked on the dirt roads, the old women pumping water and washing clothes day in and day out, and the taut muscles and callused hands of each fisherman that my timeline and his are not the same.
“More fish inside = Better fishing outside.” This is the slogan we were taught during our technical training before beginning work as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines. I have featured this simple slogan on educational videos and mentioned it during numerous presentations. But each time I say it I feel a twinge of guilt, the reality is not so simple.
It is true that MPAs can increase fish numbers, and then these same fish may swim over the protected area boundary line and could be caught by a fisherman. Residents of Apo Island, Philippines, have witnessed this reality and their gains in fish catch have demonstrated this ‘spillover effect’. However Apo Island Marine Reserve was established in 1985, and has been properly managed ever since.
The success of an MPA depends on many factors, most notably successful management: Is the no fishing rule actually enforced? Given successful management, gains in fish populations have been widely documented inside MPAs. “More fish inside = Better fishing outside” or the “spillover effect” has also been documented, but not nearly to the same degree. I am not lying as I advocate to the fisher folk that they abstain from certain grounds to increase their yields in the future, however this timeline for spillover occurs about 15-40 years after the MPAs creation, given proper management. And so as that fisherman stares back at me, his eyes cry out, “I need food for tomorrow.”
Despite my guilt, I preach to establish MPAs and continue justify it with the idea of spillover. Although short-term needs are strong incentives, all MPAs within my province are community-managed, built on the support of local fisher folk and People’s Organization in coordination with the local government. This long-term planning is essential to community prosperity.
As a government staff member, I also work on alternative livelihood development, so that these closures, which may save declining fish populations, can coincide with options for displaced fish folk. Tourism options from a successful MPA could reap more benefits than the reef even brought at the start. Even so, the solution is not perfect, but for a coastal community overfishing is not a simple issue.
Russ, G.R., Alcala, A.C., Maypa, A.P., Calumpong, H.P., & White, A.T. (2004) “Marine Reserve Benefits Local Fisheries.” Ecological Applications 14(2): 597-606.
 Note: No study has literally tagged fish inside and provided concrete evidence of the same fish being caught outside an MPA, however Russ et al 2004 have demonstrated a rise in catch per unit effort in waters surrounding the MPA in the years following its creation when no such gains were found in waters further from the MPA.