Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Marine reserve gives island paradise a second lease of life

By David Challenger, CNN
  • Apo's reputation as a successful example of green sustainability grows
  • Reefs surrounding the island were severely damaged by destructive methods of fishing
  • Scientists spearheaded initiative to reverse island's fortunes by setting up a marine reserve

Apo Island, Philippines -- "Welcome, welcome," call out local women holding colorful T-shirts and quilts as pump boats carrying tourists pull up onto the shell-lined beach. "Please look, we have many things to sell."

Wading ashore through the crystal clear water, visitors are immediately struck by an air of optimism and confidence that resonates throughout the island village community.

But it could have ended up being all so very different.

Situated in the Mindanao Sea in the southern Philippines, Apo Island may be small at just 0.7 km/sq, but its reputation as a successful example of environmental sustainability has grown rapidly, all due to a bold experiment that started in the 1970s.

Back then, it was a struggling fishing community that had turned to more productive but highly destructive methods of fishing such as using dynamite and arsenic. Reefs surrounding the island were severely damaged, fishing stocks quickly dwindled, and fishermen were forced to sail further away to find worthwhile catches.

Its future, like many other fishing communities in the Philippines at that time, was grim: Apo was at risk of becoming a permanently poor and sleepy island where coral rubble and green and blue-green algae predominated.

Before the reserve, families were very poor and children were forced to stay on the island for their whole lives
--Liberty Pescobello Rhodes

The island's predicament pricked the interest of academics in nearby Silliman University in Dumaguete, the lively capital of Negros Oriental, including marine biologist Dr. Angel Alcala.

Shocked by Apo's seemingly self-destructive course, yet heartened by its potential for sustainable existence, Alcala spearheaded an initiative to turn around the island's fortunes by setting up a "no-take" marine reserve in 15 percent of the 104 hectares of coral reef around the island.

By 1982, the plan was in effect.

"The marine reserve, totally closed to fishing, in the course of time improved in coral cover and in fish biomass, fish abundance, and species richness," Alcala explained. "This is in contrast to the rest of the island where fishing was allowed. After several years, the volume of fish catch increased substantially, which was interpreted as the result of spillover of fish from the marine reserve as well as the result of the cessation of destructive fishing in all parts of the reef."

The effects soon proved beneficial to Apo's community -- fishermen were able to increase their catches closer to the island after fish biomass increased from approximately eight tons per square kilometer to about 155 tons per square kilometer.

The corals and other marine species inside the marine reserve also improved considerably, which attracted visitors who paid user fees to the community to dive among the blossoming reefs.

"Because of the protection of its coral reef, people earned a good living in transporting tourists from the Negros mainland to Apo. People on the island engaged in small businesses and improved the local economy," Alcala said.

The reserve has given autonomy back to Apo locals, which has helped give it back to all fishing communities in the Philippines
--Dr. Angel Alcala

Today, the island holds a population of about 680 people. It has small villages that are connected by attractive paths, which are decorated with natural flora. Colorful roosters mingle with wayward dogs as they vie for shade under the modest but sturdy houses. Children dart in and out of their homes, always smiling or laughing -- youths who would have once faced limited prospects.

"Before the success of the reserve, families were very poor and children were forced to stay on the island for their whole lives," explained Apo village head Liberty Pescobello Rhodes. "But now they can go to college in cities, marry non-Apo spouses, get good jobs, and send money back to the island community."

There's still no 24-hour electricity, and by no means is island life comfortable, but the knock-on effect of the marine reserve's success has helped the community improve its infrastructure.

"Some tourists have ended up contributing money to our community," says Rhodes. "Some examples include a German dentist who donated toothpaste and toothbrushes for a whole year, while another guest from the UK gave us money to help build a library."

Moreover, Apo's success at reinventing itself is proving an inspiration to other struggling fishing communities in the Philippines, critical in a nation made up of more than 7,000 islands.

Many visitors coming from various parts of the country's coastal communities have seen first hand the results of Apo's efforts, and set up programs of their own.

"There are about 563 marine reserves in the whole of the Visayas and another 500 or so in other parts of the country," Alcala said. "Many of these have been established on the Apo model of community-based marine reserves. It has given autonomy back to the locals of Apo, which in turn has helped give it back to all coastal fishing communities in the Philippines."