Tag Archives: conservation

More fish inside = Better fishing outside

A 1.5hr bike ride to one of my favorite snorkel spots

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.

A small school of razorfish turns quickly to the side and backs away.
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.

Fishing nets
Fishing nets
More nets!
More 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.

Snorkeling in Hinag-Oman, Ferrol
Snorkeling in Hinag-Oman, Ferrol, Romblon

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’[1]. However Apo Island Marine Reserve was established in 1985, and has been properly managed ever since.

Apo Island Marine Reserve est. 1985 and a haven for turtles, corals and tourism.
Apo Island Marine Reserve est. 1985 and a haven for turtles, corals and tourism.

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.

[1] 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.

Youth Camp

IMG_0359 IMG_0433

One of our projects as trainees was to host a Youth Camp for the advanced science students of the local high school. Thus last Saturday, we had 7 different teams of high school students, each equipped with a Peace Corps counselor and fancy marine science name tags. Our teams rotated between various stations including coral, seagrass and mangrove ecology, climate change, waste management, fish anatomy and the invertebrate taxonomy class that I co-instructed. The camp content was reminiscent of the curriculum at regularly taught at MarineLab, however species were Pacific-specific and added in several games and the ever-important meryenda (snack) to our program. For my invertebrate lab, I woke up at 5am to go snorkeling and collect urchins, sea stars, crabs, cowries, snails, sea cucumbers and sponges for students to look at. The students were already familiar with the major marine phyla and worked to sort our sample critters accordingly as they learned the common characteristics of each major phylum. 


  • Echinoderms (spiny skin and tube feet): sea stars, brittle stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers
  • Arthropods (jointed appendages): crabs, hermit crabs, shrimp
  • Mollusks (soft squishy body, hard shell): snails, cowies, sea hares, sea slugs, nudibranches
  • Cnidaria (stinging cells): corals, anemones, jellyfish
  • Porifera (pores): sponges


Fun Fact: Did you know that 97% of all animals are invertebrates!?!


Pawikan Conservation Center


Yesterday we visited the Pawikan (sea turtle) Conservation Center just a short drive from my home in Sabang. The center was founded in 1999 by Kuya Manolo Ibias (photo below), a former sea turtle egg consumer who came to recognize the importance of marine turtles within the ecosystem and organized local community members to assist in turtle conservation. We got to see a baby olive ridley turtle (the first olive ridley I have ever seen because they are not found in the Atlantic) as well as a hawksbill and a green sea turtle.

Sea turtle nesting occurs from mid-September until mid-February here in the Philippines. During these months the 16 volunteers at the Pawikan Conservation Center patrol 6 kilometers of beach 2xs every night in search of mama sea turtles which crawl up the beach to lay their eggs. A mama turtle will typically lay an average of three clutches in a given season with just over 100 eggs per nest. After about 60 days the eggs hatch and baby turtles crawl to the surface and into the ocean. Light pollution is a significant threat to baby sea turtles, which use the glimmer of moon light off the water to orient themselves towards the ocean. Thus if you leave the back lights on at your beach house you might cause a baby green sea turtle to crawl in the direction of human development rather than out to sea.

Olive ridley sea turtles are most common along this beach. Last season Manolo and his team excavated 191 nests. The volunteers have chosen to dig up each nest they locate and transport the eggs to a hatchery at the conservation center to protect the baby turtles from various predators including dogs, crabs, birds and poachers. The hatchery consisted of a large enclosed sand pen. Half of the pen was shaded, while the other half was exposed to sunlight. Because a sea turtle’s gender is determined by the temperature of the egg during development, this hatchery design provides cooler temperatures for the shaded nests generally yielding male turtles and hotter temperatures for the sunlit nests, which tend to produce more female turtles. When transporting the eggs volunteers must move quickly because within a few hours of being laid the turtle embryo will attach itself to the egg shell at which point any rotational disturbance of the egg may kill the developing baby. New nests are dug by volunteers within the hatchery pen and monitored until the baby turtles emerge and can be released into the ocean.

Want to see a mama turtle nesting and help with nest transport yourself?! Manolo is always looking for new volunteers. Why not spend Christmas in the Philippines on the Pawikan Conservation Team?!? I will even pick you up at the Manila airport.IMG_0727