Thursday, May 5, 2011

Apo Reef is the Jewel of Mindoro

This tale is fraught with sharks and treasure, pirates and poachers, with strife and solutions. So don your gear and dive with me, as we go on a little treasure hunt.

“Apo Reef is the Jewel of Mindoro,” said former Sablayan Mayor Godofreido Mintu over a seafood dinner the night before. “Perhaps you may come to realize just what its treasure is, but only after you dive.” Fuelled by a lifelong fascination with both pirate lore and bizarre quests, the old man’s words struck home.

So now, surrounded by a plethora of undersea life 65 feet below the eastern face of Apo Isle in Occidental Mindoro, I pray to Poseidon and secretly assign myself a treasure hunt – a quest to find the true ‘jewels’ of the deep. Not real jewels, of course – but whatever makes this area unique. Through the years, I’ve endured enough trips to unearth everything from bargain sports goods to the comics of a forgotten age, so this quest feels strangely familiar.

Seven-strong for luck, both our WWF dive column and my thoughts drift leisurely, propelled alongside a heavily encrusted sea wall by invisible ocean currents. My attention shifts to the wall, where a neon-hued array of fairy basslets frolic amidst the swaying tips of crimson gorgonians. I peer in to inspect their knobby rows of polyps, careful not to touch anything, Leave No Trace (LNT) principles of primary importance.

A minute later, an impossibly huge school of Yellow-dashed Fusilier (Pterocaesio randalli) appears from beneath. I try to estimate their number but simply cannot – they coalesce into a single mass which fills my vision end to end. In a moment they are gone, and I am left looking down into the blue.

This truly is Poseidon’s realm. Consider that 71% of the Earth is covered in water, and 97% of all this forms its vast oceans. Covering just 1% of the ocean floor, coral reefs host an incredible variety of life: one in four marine creatures live within these undersea oases – and nowhere are these more beautiful and productive than in the wondrous Pacific archipelago known as the Philippines.

The Origin of Life and Legend

Apo Reef lies at the northern tip of the Coral Triangle, a 5.7 million square-kilometre region which spans the seas of six countries including the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. A fourth of the world’s islands lie nestled within this exquisite region, distinguished by the presence of at least 500 species of reef-building coral.

The Coral Triangle is so abundant in marine life that it has been hailed by globally-renowned coral expert and Corals of the World author Dr. Charlie Veron as ‘the centre of Earth’s marine diversity’ – home to 605 out of the 798 known reef-building corals and 2228 types of reef fish which include the Sulawesi Coelacanth (Latimeria menadoensis), a living relic of the Dinosaur era, thought to have been extinct for some 70 million years.

Like the Bermuda Triangle, the area has also spawned a menagerie of folklore. During the Age of Sail, both pirates and privateers swore of surmounting enchanting mermaids, wailing sirens, ship-tearing kraken and all manner of sea monsters.

In actuality, the region is an enormous undersea food factory, whose produce directly benefits half-a-billion people yearly. A single square kilometre of healthy reef can keep on producing over 40 metric tonnes of grouper, oyster, tuna and other forms of seafood year on year. Obviously, the potential of our seas to sustain life – both human and otherwise – is Leviathan-sized.

Paradise Assailed

In Greek mythology, the infant Zeus nursed from a bountiful horn carried by the nymph Amalthea. This so-called Cornucopian Horn came to be associated with both wealth and abundance. Properly protected, the Philippines’ 27,000 square kilometers of coral reefs can too, turn into a Cornucopian Horn, providing for the needs of millions in a very real bid to eradicate Asian poverty.

Paradise lies troubled, however. For over a century, coastal development, destructive fishing practices, coral mining, sedimentation, overfishing, chemical pollution and climate change consequences such as ocean warming, acidification and coral bleaching have been waging an undersea war against our marine enclaves.

Now the Philippines, together with Indonesia – hosts the world’s most threatened coral reefs, less than 5% of which remain in excellent condition. Faced with this problem, many countries within the Coral Triangle established Marine Protected Areas or MPAs to conserve what’s left.

Undersea Enclaves

“Marine Protected Areas evolved when people realized that portions of coral reefs needed continual protection to stay productive,” explains WWF Conservation Programs Vice-President Joel Palma. “These areas go by a host of names: MPAs, fish sanctuaries or no-take zones. All of them are loosely defined as inter or subtidal spots reserved by law for the protection of a given area.”

Today the Philippines hosts about 10% of the world’s MPAs – over 500, more than any in Southeast Asia. Established largely through local government initiatives and maintained through the blood, sweat and tears of local coastal communities, these undersea enclaves are scattered throughout the archipelago to provide vital safe havens for Philippine marine life as well as a growing number of eco-conscious tourists.

Sadly, many MPAs are plagued by a lack of funding. Mismanagement is rife, and it is estimated that little over 100 MPAs are properly administered. The rest are dubbed as ‘paper parks’ – areas urgently needing funding and professional management. MPA incursions due to hunting have been recurring sources of friction between the Philippines and its neighbours.

In September of 2007, 126 endangered Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas) and 10,000 turtle eggs were found aboard Chinese fishing vessel F/V 01087 in Sulu.

In August of 2008, 101 critically-endangered Hawksbill Turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) were found aboard Vietnamese fishing vessel F/V 91234-TS near El Nido.

In April of 2009, 14 Green Sea Turtles were found aboard an unmarked Chinese speedboat near Cauayan Isle, also in El Nido.

Since the 1990s, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has been working with partners in the private sector, government agencies and civil society in furthering scientific research, policy reform, protected area and community-based management within the Coral Triangle. Its Philippine office has pioneered the establishment and upkeep of Marine Protected Areas in some of the country’s best-known and most productive coral reefs.

Two of the country’s best-managed MPAs include Apo Reef off the western coast of Occidental Mindoro and the Tubbataha Reefs off the Sulu Sea.

A Jewel in the Orient’s Pearl

Hailed as the Jewel of Mindoro and a former world-class dive site, 30 years of destructive fishing has left much of Apo Reef in an abysmal state. In October of 2007, WWF and the local government of Sablayan in Mindoro spearheaded the total closure of Apo Reef, at 34 square-kilometers – the country’s largest – for fishing. In its stead followed alternative livelihood programmes and a robust ecotourism drive designed to keep livelihoods afloat while allowing the reef ample time to recover.

Giant fish aggregation devices, locally termed Payaw, have been installed to provide alternate fishing spots for coastal communities. The crude but effective contraptions feature a buoy, a counterweight and anywhere from 10 to 20 giant coconut fronds. Algae growths on the decomposing fronds attract herbivores such as surgeonfish and rabbitfish, which then draw in larger predators.

Local group leader Elmo Bijona testifies to the effectiveness of the devices, “A single Payaw can daily yield maybe 15-kilogrammes of good fish per boat. You can land Tambakol, Tulingan, Galunggong and even Yellowfin Tuna on any given night.” The steady rise in the size and number of fish has been matched by an upsurge of tourists, proving that ecological stewardship goes hand in hand with profit.

Even more dramatic results are evident in other model sites. From 2004 to 2005, the world-renowned Tubbataha Reefs off Palawan doubled yearly fish biomass from 166 to 318 metric tonnes per square kilometre – a yield seven times more productive than a typical reef. In addition, Tubbataha’s fertile reefs constantly seed adjoining regions such as eastern Palawan and western Visayas with fish and invertebrate spawn. Through the work of WWF and its allies, Apo Reef may one day be what Tubbataha is now.

Natural Investments

Apo Reef differs from all other WWF-Philippines project sites in that it is kept afloat almost exclusively by donations. Bright Skies for Every Juan is a pioneering programme which enjoins Cebu Pacific passengers to indirectly offset the ecological impacts of their flights by donating to the upkeep of the reef.

The programme synergizes the efforts of WWF, Cebu Pacific and the local government of Sablayan to bolster the region’s resilience to climate change impacts through MPA protection, the promotion of responsible ecotourism and the introduction of alternative livelihoods.

"Cebu Pacific’s decision to spearhead climate adaptation is a prime example of private-sector leadership,” says WWF-Philippines CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan. “Our government alone cannot turn back the tide of climate effects. It is the private sector which has the skills needed to think incisively, move efficiently and manage risk.”

In the face of worsening climate impacts, protecting biodiversity enclaves makes perfect sense. Says Tan, “Our work in Apo Reef and other protected areas focus on more than just biodiversity conservation: should we succeed in halting climate change, these pockets of marine resilience will provide the building blocks needed to restore natural mechanisms which provide food and livelihood for millions of people. This is a natural investment.”

A White-tipped Oracle

Back in Apo Reef, the hunt continues. Over an hour’s exploration has yielded little in the way of jewels or answers. Everywhere the dawn rays begin slicing through the water, reflecting off an innocuous shadow 30-feet away. Perhaps, I reflect, what’s important in treasure hunting is the journey. The best hunters have all learned to pick out treasure from trash. So too must we allow the hunt ... to transform the hunter.

Inexorably, the shadow morphs into a White-tip Reef Shark (Triaenodon obesus), itself on a hunt, as evidenced by its menacing and exaggerated motions. I tense up, one gloved hand cupping a dive-knife used more for show than anything else. The shark torpedoes onward. Time slows down. Suddenly an enveloping shadow smothers all light!

Puzzled, I gaze up and realize just what attracted the shark in the first place. The fusiliers – thousands upon thousands of them, have returned. The shark pulls up and dives into the mass.

As I watch the fascinating interplay between predator and prey, I notice, as if for the first time, the fusiliers’ gleaming hues of cobalt, ruby and gold, gloriously illuminated by the morning. Then and there I realize that the shark’s hunt led me to the end of mine.

As with the grandest treasure tales, the most valuable fortunes really do lie sunken beneath the blue. As inhabitants of the world’s second-largest archipelago, we must realize that the sea’s greatest treasure is its ability to provide – but that providence shall only continue when we in turn, learn to protect what we have been gifted with. Satisfied, I nod to the scene and swim off to rejoin the group.

65 feet below the Jewel of Mindoro, at the apex of the Coral Triangle, I have finally accomplished my treasure hunt.

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