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Island communities lead the way to coral reef conservation in the Philippines 

January 26, 2023

The Coral Triangle — an expanse of tropical ocean spanning much of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific — has long been a priority for conservation leaders. As its name suggests, the region and its many islands are home to countless coral reefs and the enormous biodiversity they support. One area in particular, the Verde Island Passage, has the attention of some of the world’s leading marine biologists.

A narrow waterway between the Philippine islands of Luzon and Mindoro, the passage is widely considered the heart of the heart of the coral triangle. Its dense reefs support thriving fisheries, a mind-boggling array of nudibranchs and other invertebrates, and other marine life. Scientists regularly discover new species there. 

Seacology has launched several partnerships with local communities to protect the Verde Island Passage and the watersheds that drain into it. In December we partnered with the California Academy of Sciences—another Bay Area institution that supports research and conservation in the area—to show supporters of both organizations the impact of our work up-close. Our group visited the new Seacology-funded ecotourism center on Maricaban Island, met with local partners, and learned about the Academy’s citizen-science initiatives in the area. As an added perk, they got to dive and snorkel around the vibrant reefs that we are working to protect. 

Dr. Terry Gosliner, a leading expert in the area’s invertebrate life, is one of the Academy scientists who led the expedition. At a time when coral reefs are vanishing worldwide, he finds hope in the Verde Island Passage: 

“Not only is the Verde Island Passage one of the richest parts of the ocean, it also has natural resilience to coral bleaching. The reefs have recovered pretty quickly after bleaching events and with very little mortality in the coral,” he explains. “There’s something magical about how these reefs have evolved that gives them extra resilience, so it’s particularly important that we protect this part of the ocean.”

The Verde Island Passage's healthy coral reefs have made it a destination for divers from around the world.

Countless species of nudibranchs can be found among the area's reefs. Photo by Ferdie Marcelo

The new visitors’ center in Tingloy Municipality, funded by Seacology in exchange for the establishment of a marine reserve, will play an important role toward this goal. Maricaban is an increasingly popular destination for tourists from surrounding provinces. This is an enormous benefit to the local economy—and also highlights the need to balance the environmental costs and benefits of tourism. 

As ecotourism grows, some local people have switched from fishing to tourism to make a living. This takes pressure off of the fisheries. However, the volume of visitors has sometimes increased pollution and crowded the island’s pristine coastlines. The new center, built on the island’s main dock, will make it easier for officials to limit the number of visitors to Masasa Beach and other popular sites, inform them of the conservation rules, and collect user fees to fund management of the island’s natural resources. Though tourism faced a major setback during pandemic shutdowns, visitors have begun to return, and local leaders are excited to welcome them back.

Seacology and California Academy of Sciences guests visit the new welcome center.

The group gathers in on Tingloy Municipality's waterfront.

“A lot of people have gained additional income from the tourism industry,” says Herbert Dumaoal, a local government representative who greeted the group of Seacology and Academy supporters. “Their way of living has greatly improved.” 

Gosliner is optimistic because of the conservation progress he’s seen since first visiting the area three decades ago. Island communities deserve the lion’s share of the credit, he says, citing their leadership in ending blast fishing and other destructive practices, and their successful management of protected areas like the one established at Maricaban Island. His hope for the future? That the national government will adopt conservation strategies pioneered by island communities.

Prior to our project, overcrowding and pollution were frequent problems on the island.

Our project supports a new marine reserve off Masasa Beach, protecting 50 acres.

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