Filipinas – Isla Apo – El Santuario Marino de la Isla Apo: Restaurando la Pesquería del Arrecife Coral

Autor: Gerry Marten

En una remota aldea de pescadores en el archipiélago Filipino, los pescadores costeros respondieron al desplome en la población de peces duplicando sus esfuerzos por capturarlos. La combinación del uso de dinamita, jornadas más largas y equipo más avanzado solo aceleró la desaparición de peces. Al borde de la crisis, esta pequeña comunidad decidió crear una reserva marina de cero pesca en un 10% de sus arrecifes. Esta iniciativa revivió no solo su pesquería, sino su forma de vida.

Apo Island provides a relatively simple but very real case study for exploring how EcoTipping Points work in practice. Apo is a small island (78 hectares), 9 kilometers from the coast of Negros in the Philippine archipelago. The island has 145 households and a resident population of 710 people. Almost all the men on the island are fishermen. The main fishing grounds are in the area surrounding the island to a distance of roughly 500 meters, an area with extensive coral reefs and reaching a water depth of about 60 meters. Fishermen use small, paddle-driven outrigger canoes, though a few fishermen (particularly younger ones) have outboard motors on their canoes. The main fishing methods are hook and line, gill nets, and bamboo fish traps.

Apo Island’s “negative tip” started about forty years ago. Before then, there was a stable fishery with ample harvest to support fishermen and their families. During the years following World War II the growing human population and increasing fishing pressure made the fishery increasingly vulnerable to unsustainable fishing. The “negative tip” came with the introduction of four destructive fishing methods to the Philippines:

  • Dynamite fishing, which started with explosives left over from World War II and gained momentum by the 1960s;
  • Muro-ami (from Japan). Fish are chased into nets by pounding on coral with rocks.
  • Cyanide, introduced during the 1970s for the aquarium fish trade. Aquarium fish are no longer collected in this region, but cyanide remained.
  • Small-mesh nets. Worldwide marketing of newly developed nylon nets brought small-mesh beach seines and other small-mesh nets to the region in the 1970s.

Dynamite, cyanide, muro-ami, and small-mesh nets are more effective than traditional Filipino fishing methods, but they are seriously detrimental to the sustainability of the fishery. Not only do they make overfishing and immature fish harvesting easier, they also damage fishing habitat. These fishing methods have been illegal since regulations were imposed in the early 1980s. The Philippine Coast Guard and National Police are responsible for enforcing fishing regulations, but their vast areas of jurisdiction have made it virtually impossible for these agencies to stop destructive fishing.

The introduction of destructive fishing methods set in motion a vicious cycle of declining fish stocks and greater use of destructive methods to compensate for deteriorating fishing conditions. Damage to the coral reef habitat is now extensive throughout much of the Philippines, and fish stocks are generally low.

Fish stocks in the most degraded areas are down to 5-10% of what they were 50 years ago. Though catches in degraded areas are not sufficient to support a fisherman full-time, the fishery continues to be depressed by a large number of fishermen, many of them part-time and many using illegal fishing methods that they consider the only practical way to catch fish under these conditions. The problem is exacerbated by illegal encroachment of larger commercial fishing boats with gear such as purse seines and ring nets wherever enforcement is lax and nearshore fishing conditions are good enough to make encroachment worthwhile.

The prelude to the positive tip for Apo Island began in 1974 when Dr. Angel Alcala (director of the marine laboratory at Silliman University in Dumaguete City) and Oslob municipality (Cebu) initiated a small marine sanctuary, the region’s first, at uninhabited Sumilon Island (about 50 km from Apo). Dr. Alcala and some of his colleagues at Silliman University visited Apo Island In 1979 to explain how a marine sanctuary could help to reverse the decline in their fishery, a decline that had become obvious to everyone. By that time, fish stocks on the Apo Island fishing grounds had declined so much that fishermen were compelled to spend much of their time traveling as far as 10 km from the island to seek more favorable fishing conditions.

Dr. Alcala took some of the fishermen to see the marine sanctuary at Sumilon Island, which by then was teeming with fish. They were able to see how the sanctuary could serve as a nursery to stock the surrounding area, but they were not completely convinced. Marine sanctuaries were not part of Philippine fisheries tradition. After three years of dialogue between Silliman University staff and Apo Island fishermen, 14 families decided to establish a no-fishing marine sanctuary on the island. A minority of families was able to do it because the barangay captain (local government leader) supported the idea.

The positive tip for Apo Island came with actual establishment of a marine sanctuary in 1982. The fishermen selected an area along 450 meters of shoreline and extending 500 meters from shore as the sanctuary site – slightly less than 10% of the fishing grounds around the island. The sanctuary area had high quality coral but few fish. It required only one person watching from the beach to ensure that no one fished inside the sanctuary, guard duty rotating among the participating families. Fish numbers and sizes started to increase in the sanctuary, and “spillover” of fish from the sanctuary to the surrounding marine ecosystem led to higher fish catches around the periphery, eventually to a distance of several hundred meters. In 1985 all island families decided to support the sanctuary and make it legally binding through the local municipal government.

When the fishermen saw what happened in and around the sanctuary, they concluded that fishing restrictions over the island’s entire fishing grounds should be able to increase fish numbers there as well. With technical support from a coastal resource management organization, the fishermen set up a Marine Management Committee and formulated regulations against destructive fishing and encroachment of fishermen from other areas on their fishing grounds. They established a local “marine guard” (bantay dagat) consisting of village volunteers to police the fishing grounds. It was no longer necessary to guard the sanctuary per se because everyone accepted its status as a no-fishing zone. The main task of the marine guards today is to check boats that enter their fishing grounds from other areas. They do not seem to worry about Apo Island fishermen because sustainable fishing has become an integral part of the island culture.

Although available data do not allow a precise comparison of current fish stocks and catches on the Apo Island fishing grounds with fish stocks and catches when the sanctuary was established, the data indicate that catch-per-unit-effort more than tripled by the mid-1990s and has not changed much since then (Russ et al. 2004). The larger and commercially more valuable fish (e.g., surgeon fish and jacks) increased more slowly and are in fact still increasing. This scenario is confirmed by the fishermen’s subjective impression of what has happened.

Interestingly, the total catch by island fishermen is about the same as 23 years ago when the sanctuary began. This is because the fishermen have responded to the increase in fish stocks by reducing their effort instead of catching more fish. Fishermen no longer must travel long distances to fish elsewhere. Fishing is good enough right around the island. A few hours of work each day provides food for the family and enough cash income for necessities. The fishermen worked long hours before. Now they enjoy more leisure time. If they wish, they can use some of the extra time for other income generating activities such as transporting materials or people between the island and the mainland. The most prominent reason for earning extra money is to fund higher education for their children.

The striking abundance and diversity of fish and other marine animals (e.g., turtles and sea snakes) around the island have attracted coral reef tourism (Cadiz and Calumpong 2000). The island has two small hotels and a dive shop, which employ several dozen island residents. In addition, diving tour boats come daily from the nearby mainland. A few island households take tourists as boarders, and some of the women have tourist related jobs such as catering for the hotels or hawking Apo Island T-shirts. The island government collects a snorkeling/diving fee, which has been used to finance a diesel generator that supplies electricity to every house in the island’s main village during the evening. The tourist fees have also financed substantial improvements for the island’s elementary school, garbage collection for disposal at a landfill on the mainland, and improvements in water supply.

Tourist revenue has also provided family income and “scholarships” (from one of the island hotel owners) to finance more than half the island’s children to attend high school on the adjacent mainland, and many continue to university. Almost all university graduates and many high school graduates stay on the mainland with a job that allows them to send money to their family back on the island. A few return for professional work on the island such as elementary school teacher, and some aspire to return to contribute to the island’s health services, governance, or marine ecosystem management. Remittances from family members living off-island are used mainly for private infrastructure such as house improvements. Many people who live away from the island live close enough for frequent visits to their family on the island.

Apo Island has served as a model for fishing communities on the adjacent mainlands of Negros and Cebu. The head of Apo Island’s local government visits other fishing villages to explain the sanctuary, and people from other villages visit Apo to see what it’s all about. In 1994 the Apo Island example, and the fact that Dr. Alcala was Minister of Natural Resources, stimulated the Philippine government to establish a national marine sanctuary program that now has about 400 sanctuaries nationwide. Not all are functioning as well as they should, but many seem to be on the same path as Apo.

The Apo Island story is not a fairy tale. I visited Apo Island, I talked to island residents, and everyone told me the same story. They firmly believe that the sanctuary saved their island. The story is documented by scientific publications that include 25 years of monitoring the island fishery and ecological conditions in the sanctuary. The following publications provide an overview: Russ and Alcala (1996), Russ and Alcala (1998), Russ and Alcala (1999), Alcala (2001, p. 73-84), Maypa et al. (2002), Raymundo and Maypa (2003), Russ and Alcala (2004), Russ et al. (2004), Alcala et al. (2005), Raymundo and White (2005).

Apo Island is not perfect. There are personal conflicts, political factions, complaints about government, and many other things typical of human society around the world. People on the island are not particularly affluent. Houses do not have piped water; residents must collect water from faucets strategically placed around the village. Medical services on the island are limited, though doctors can be reached with a half-hour boat ride to the mainland. Many feel that the economic benefits of tourism, which go mainly to the hotel owners, should be distributed more evenly. While participation in the national sanctuary program has reinforced the status of the Apo Island sanctuary and provided networking benefits, it also means island fishermen no longer have complete control of sanctuary management or funds that come from diving and snorkeling fees.

As tourism has increased, concern has grown about the impact of snorkeling and diving on the sanctuary and the fishery (Reboton and Calumpong 2003). The island government has instituted restrictions on the number of tourists in the sanctuary to limit damage to coral there. Fishermen have complained that divers scare fish away from where they are fishing and sometimes damage their fish traps or release fish from the traps. As a consequence, divers are not allowed to swim within 50 meters of fishing activities and the prime fishing area is completely off limits to divers. Some island inhabitants are not satisfied with enforcement of these restrictions, and dialogue continues about what should be done to protect the marine ecosystem from damage by tourism.

But overall, there is a conspicuous atmosphere of well being and satisfaction with quality of life on the island. This is not because the island inhabitants are ignorant or inertial. They value their quality of life and the quality of the island’s marine ecosystem, and they want to keep it that way. Their experience with the sanctuary has taught them an important lesson. It is necessary to change some things by community action in order to keep other very important things the same.

Twenty years ago the island inhabitants changed the way they managed their fishing activities. Now they need to make some changes in the size of their families. Everyone agrees that the island’s increasing human population is a serious threat to its future. A family planning program was initiated two years ago, and contraceptives are readily available at a small community-operated family planning center. Most families are using them. Young people, even elementary school children, readily express their intention to have a small family. Immigration of people who are not descended from Apo Island families is not allowed.

The sanctuary has changed the way that people on the island view their world. The fishermen say that before the sanctuary their strategy was to fish a place with destructive methods until it was no longer worth fishing and then move to a new place that was not yet degraded. Now they are committed to keeping one place, their island’s fishing grounds, sustainable. Before, they expected government agencies responsible for enforcing fishing regulations to do so and complained when it didn’t happen. Now they enforce their own regulations themselves. This spirit of local initiative has extended to developing the island’s infrastructure and assuring that island children get the education they need for a decent future. Organization for fisheries management has stimulated the community to organize in other ways as well – particularly women’s groups. The island has a locally operated women’s credit union and a women’s association for selling souvenirs to tourists.

What Does the Apo Island Story Tell Us About EcoTipping Points?

We can draw the following interconnected conclusions about EcoTipping Points from the Apo Island story:

The central role of catalytic actions and mutually reinforcing positive feedback loops. EcoTipping Points cascade through and between social system and ecosystem. A small change to either system leads to larger changes in both. A positive tip generates improvements in social and ecological systems that reinforce one another to turn both systems from deterioration to health. The catalytic action for Apo Island was establishment of the marine sanctuary, which set in motion numerous ecological and social changes. Most important was the fact that success with the sanctuary inspired local fishermen to devise and enforce regulations for their entire fishing grounds. Every round of success after that inspired the fishermen to improve the management regime even further. More fish stimulated tourism, which in turn reinforced the need for a vibrant marine ecosystem to continue attracting tourists. Tourism, the positive experience of exerting control over their destiny, and recognition as a model community for fisheries management stimulated numerous changes in the island society, setting in motion additional positive feedback loops involving island infrastructure, education, and family planning.

EcoTipping Points are efficient because they mobilize nature and natural social processes to do the work. The small labor input required to guard a 450-meter sanctuary allowed nature to restore the sanctuary and subsequently led to nature restoring the entire marine ecosystem over the island’s fishing grounds. The Apo Island story is not about an elaborate development plan that depended on large amounts of money and unattainable management targets to achieve success. The tipping point – establishment of the sanctuary – set in motion short-term feedback loops so people could quickly see the consequences of their actions. Normal economic, social, and governmental processes took it from there.

The central role of local community. The marine sanctuary was an effective tipping point because it belonged to the community. Most of the important things that happened after establishing the sanctuary came from local community action. Success empowered the community by motivating people to seek out more tipping points to provide even better services from their social and ecological systems. Once in motion on a local scale, the process extended beyond the island to include hotels, dive tours, and mainland high schools and universities. It eventually extended to national government, which served as a catalyst to disseminate the same formula for local empowerment to other fishing villages. Strong local leadership in support of the sanctuary was critical for success. Apo Island has been blessed with supportive and strong barangay captains over the years. In other situations the leadership might come from civil society.

Role of outside stimulation and facilitation. While action at the local level is an essential feature of EcoTipping Points, proactive stimulation and facilitation from outside the local community is often essential to set community action in motion and realize the cascade of effects that turns change in a better direction. Three years of dialogue and stimulation from Silliman University were necessary before local fishermen decided to try a sanctuary in 1982. Facilitation by a Philippine non-government organization with financial support from the United States played a crucial role in developing a sound management program for the island’s entire fishing grounds in 1985. Island residents were highly motivated to have a family planning program, and a Philippine organization with international funding helped to make it happen.

EcoTipping Points generate symbols that reinforce the tip. They create community spaces, shared community “stories,” or other means that symbolize the “tip” and mobilize community action to carry it forward. The sanctuary is a sacred site for Apo Island inhabitants. It forms the centerpiece of a shared story of pride and achievement. It is unthinkable to violate the sanctuary or what it represents.

Significance of the demonstration effect. Demonstration stimulates, sustains, and expands the process. The 14 families who started the Apo Island sanctuary would not have done it if they had not seen the sanctuary at Sumilon Island. They would not have persisted in guarding their sanctuary, and the other families on the island would not have joined them to manage the entire fishing grounds, if the sanctuary did not show rapid results. The success at Apo motivated other fishing communities to give it a try.

EcoTipping Points are co-adaptive. They help social system and ecosystem to fit together, functioning as a sustainable whole. As the Apo Island experience progressed, perceptions, values, knowledge, technology, social organization, and social institutions all changed in a way that enhanced the sustainability of the marine ecosystem for fishing and tourism. Simultaneously, the marine ecosystem changed through human action and natural ecological processes to fit the new character of the island’s social system. The changes also enhanced the coadaption and integration of different parts of the marine ecosystem. The sanctuary contributed to the ecological health of the adjacent fishing grounds, and the implementation of sustainable fishing practices on the fishing grounds enhanced the quality of the sanctuary. The two together – sanctuary and fishing grounds – function as a co-adapted and sustainable whole.

Effective EcoTipping Points enhance resilience. We can consider “resilience” to be the ability to continue functioning with the same mutually reinforcing processes and structures despite intermittent and sometimes severe external disturbance. EcoTipping Points contribute most effectively to sustainability when they move a social-ecological system into a stability domain that is not only sustainable but also resilient. Spinoffs from the sanctuary such as alternative incomes, access to higher education, the formation of women’s associations, and general strengthening of community solidarity and organization reinforce the ability of the island community to maintain a healthy and sustainable fishery and marine ecosystem in the face of unknown future challenges.

EcoTipping Points use social and ecological diversity as a resource. Apo Island fishermen would not have thought to start a sanctuary unless Silliman University staff brought the idea to them. The university was a source of social diversity that helped the fishermen to consider a greater array of strategies for dealing with the decline in their fishery. The marine sanctuary’s ecological diversity served as a stocking source for the surrounding fishing grounds, helping to maintain their ecological health and commercial value. Heavily exploited species of fish or other marine animals such as giant clams can disappear completely from fishing grounds without a sanctuary.

EcoTipping Points use social and ecological memory as a resource. Apo Island was able to return to traditional fishing methods such as hook and line, fish traps, and large-mesh nets because social memory told the fishermen that these methods were sustainable and the fishermen knew how to use them effectively. The marine ecosystem and fish populations in the sanctuary responded rapidly to protection because the strong adaptation of the region’s marine plants and animals to the local environment and to each other gave them the ability to quickly assemble a functional and sustainable ecosystem. This is ecological memory.

Feedback Analysis of the Apo Island Story

The negative tipping point occurred throughout the Philippines with the introduction of destructive fishing methods such as dynamite, cyanide, and small-mesh fishing nets. Two interlocking and mutually reinforcing vicious cycles were set in motion:

  • The use of destructive fishing methods reduced fish stocks directly through overfishing. Destructive fishing reduced the stocks indirectly by damaging their coral habitat. With declining fish stocks, the fishermen were more and more compelled to use destructive fishing methods to catch enough fish, further degrading habitat and reducing fish stocks.
  • As home fishing grounds deteriorated, fishermen traveled further and further to find less damaged sites where they could catch some fish. They used destructive fishing without restraint because places far from home were of no particular significance for future fishing. Sustainability of the island’s fishing grounds also became less important as fishing shifted away from the island.

The downward spiral of destructive fishing, habitat degradation, diminishing fish stocks, and fishing further from home continued until many places were virtually worthless for fishing.

Apo Negative

The positive tipping point for Apo Island was creation of a marine sanctuary, setting in motion a cascade of changes that reversed the vicious cycles in the negative tip. In the diagram below the vicious cycles transformed to virtuous cycles are shown in black. Additional virtuous cycles that arose in association with the marine sanctuary are shown in green and red.

  • The sanctuary served as a nursery, contributing directly to the recovery of fish stocks in the island’s fishing grounds.
  • Success with the sanctuary stimulated the fishermen to set up sustainable management for the fishing grounds. A virtuous cycle of increasing fish stocks, accompanied by growing management experience, pride, and commitment to the sanctuary, was set in motion.
  • As fishing improved around the island, fishermen were no longer compelled to travel far away for their work. Fishing right at home, where they had to live with the consequences of their fishing practices, reinforced their motivation for sustainable fishing.

Lock in” to sustainability came with the formation of additional virtuous cycles:

  • The increase in fish populations and the health of the reef ecosystem around the island led to tourism. Earnings from tourism provided a strong impetus to keep the marine ecosystem healthy. Although coral reef tourism is frequently not sustainable because tourists damage the coral, the experience of Apo Island’s inhabitants with managing their marine sanctuary and fishing grounds gave them the ability to manage tourism so it didn’t damage the coral.
  • Positive results from the marine sanctuary stimulated the island community to develop a strong marine ecology program in their elementary school, so the new generation values the island’s marine ecosystem and knows how to keep it healthy.
  • Income from tourism gave islanders the ability to send their children to high school and university on the mainland. A few have gone on to study marine science in graduate school. The high educational level of the island’s new generation will give it the ability to deal with unexpected future threats to their fishery and marine ecosystem.
  • Enhanced ecological awareness has led to a family planning program aimed at preventing an increase in population that would overburden the island’s fishery in the future.

In summary, the Apo Island story shows how EcoTipping Points provide a paradigm of hope in a world of accelerating environmental deterioration by offering an alternative to micro-management. The information, material, and energy inputs to micromanage solutions for the myriad environmental problems that we face are simply beyond human capacity. EcoTipping Points are not magic bullets to solve environmental problems overnight. But in a world of limited resources and powerful social and ecological currents, they are efficient ways to help the self-organizing powers of nature and human nature to move environmental support systems toward greater health.


Angel Alcala, Alan White, Laurie Raymundo, Aileen Maypa, and Mario Pascobello provided information for the Apo Island story. Portia Nillos helped in numerous ways during my visit to Apo Island.


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