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The Online Magazine for Sustainable Seas
December, 2002 Vol.5 No.12

How effective are marine protected areas in the Philippines?
Recent evidence suggests that scattered, small no-take zones -- such as most marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Philippines -- are not sufficient to maintain overall fish abundance and diversity. This article looks into the management of Balicasag and Pamilacan Island marine sanctuaries in central Philippines and recommends ways to improve current MPA management practices.

Extracted from Starting Point or Solution? Community-based marine protected areas in the Philippines by Patrick Christie, Alan  White and Evelyn Deguit, Journal of Environmental Management (2002) 66, 441-454. Full text available online at © 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved. Or email Patrick Christie.






fforts in the Philippines have been at the forefront of establishing community-based marine protected areas (MPAs) since the early 1980s. Various case studies (White et al., 1994; Ferrer et al., 1996; Christie and White, 2000; Salm et al., 2000; White et al., 2002) document this approach and its impacts on marine resources and communities. Other studies demonstrate the positive impacts of MPAs on fish populations (Alcala and Russ, 1990; Russ and Alcala, 1996; Roberts et al., 2001).

More recently, however, comparative research that surveyed numerous such MPAs in the Philippines showed that the majority (up to 80%) of these MPAs are not successful and that their implementation is quite challenging in the current socio-political and environmental context (Pollnac et al., 2001). This comes as no surprise to anyone that has attempted to address the myriad of simultaneous forces weak institutions, lack of financial and human resources, poverty that undermine the sustainable management of Philippine coastal resources.

The establishment of community-based MPAs in the Philippines follows a well-defined blueprint which employs community organizing, education and leadership development as means to addressing societal problems facing politically and economically marginalized communities (Wells and White, 1995; Alcala, 1998). It is based on an iterative process of problem identification, education, leadership building and action taking (White et al., 1994; Ferrer et al., 1996). The outcome of this process, in this instance, has been the establishment of small, community-controlled MPAs, usually intended to protect fringing coral reefs (and their associated fish and invertebrate communities) and to improve the socio-economic opportunities available to coastal communities largely through increased fish yields and alternative income generation.

Two MPAs, Balicasag and Pamilacan, both in Bohol Province in Central Philippines follow this community-based management approach. Although generally well-managed, they have been only partly successful in improving the overall condition of the islands’ marine environment. Their case emphasizes that while essential, small, community-controlled MPAs are individually not a complete management measure. To be truly effective, they must be nested within broader management regimes that lead to overall fishing effort reduction and networking of MPAs.

Mixed success
The approximately 30-ha Balicasag Island, with its 31-ha reef with steep dropoffs, has attracted the attention of conservationists and divers since the 1970s. In 1985, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development, 8 ha of the Balicasag Island reef were protected as a no-take marine sanctuary through a community project implemented by Silliman University (White and Savina, 1987; White and Dobias, 1991; Wells and White, 1995). Fishing, but only with traditional and non-destructive methods, was allowed on the remainder of island's reef.

The sanctuary was established through a process of education and community organizing that culminated in the passage of a local municipal ordinance. Historically, the ordinance was enforced by local people who were members of a management committee. However, since 1990, that committee's responsibility has decreased as a government agency, the Philippine Tourism Authority, established a resort on the shores of the sanctuary, and generally usurped the decision-making process and took over active protection of the sanctuary.

Although detailed historic data are not available, dive tourism on Balicasag is perceived to have increased substantially since the establishment of the MPA. Approximately 12,000 visitors dive on the reef annually, but only a small percentage stay on the island. Associated cottage industries, such as shell craft and souvenirs, catering to these visitors have become an important source of income for island residents.

The 200-ha Pamilacan Island has a sloping 180-ha reef that are less dramatic than Balicasag’s, more dominated by exposed rock (perhaps due to strong monsoon season wave action), and more heavily impacted by destructive fishing in the 1970s and 1980s. The island's approximately 1250 residents utilize their island's reef resources, but rely to a greater extent than Balicasag fishers on pelagic marine resources such as whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), mackerel (Scombrids), and manta rays (Manta birostris). In 1986, less than 20% of the fish catch was reported to come from the reef, an indication of the reef's poor condition and the island’s traditional dependence on deepwater species (Savina and White, 1986a). In that year, invertebrates, small fishes and algae gleaned from the reef flats comprised 40% of the 17.9MT/km2 yield, showing the importance of reef flats on this island and the very productive nature of this nearshore ecosystem (Savina and White, 1986b)

Since March 1986, 14 ha of Pamilacan's reef (along 600m of shore on the west side) has been protected as a marine sanctuary by the community, also through the USAID-funded project implemented by Silliman University (White and Savina, 1987; Wells and White, 1995). This sanctuary has been carefully maintained according to island residents and government officials. When we arrived, unannounced, to the sanctuary in 1999, we were immediately asked by a local fisher to report to community leaders to explain the purpose of our visit and that no fish would be collected as part of this research. Unlike Balicasag Island, the sanctuary does not attract many scuba divers and the island community does not encourage diving within the sanctuary. The rest of the island's reef is managed as a traditional fishing reserve similar to Balicasag.

The Balicasag and Pamilacan MPAs have had mixed success in maintaining the health of these coral reefs and their associated fish populations, respectively improving or maintaining coral coverage at close to historic levels of the mid-1980s. Coral cover has increased by 119% in Balicasag’s sanctuary, and by 67% in its non-sanctuary areas during the period 1984-1999 (Divinagracia, 2000), but the island’s reef is increasingly affected by breakage from anchors of dive boats and Crown-of-thorns starfish infestations. During the same period, living hard coral cover decreased by 20% in Pamilacan’s sanctuary, and by 45% in its non-sanctuary (Divinagracia, 2000).

Coral cover and fish abundance: A closer look
The reasons that coral cover has improved in one site but not the other are not clear, especially as the incidence of activities and conditions resulting in coral damage are higher on Balicasag than Pamilacan. One explanation, based on observations of the two reefs since the early 1980s, is that the Pamilacan reef naturally has less coral cover than Balicasag because it is a more sandy environment with less pronounced currents and drop-offs. Sedimentation is not a likely explanation since both islands are small, relatively flat, and distant from larger islands.

Bleaching and Crown-of-thorn starfish infestations impact each of these reefs while poorly managed dive tourism (as indicated by the lack of mooring buoys resulting in anchor damage) is mostly affecting Balicasag's reef. Undoubtedly the cessation of destructive fishing practices has been a positive factor at both sites.

Despite considerable success in maintaining the MPA at Balicasag Island, it has been unable to reverse the trend over time of declining fish abundance and species richness outside, but near, the sanctuary. In general, fish abundance and diversity within and outside the sanctuary peaked in 1986, a year after the establishment of the sanctuary when enforcement was most vigilant. This declining trend is distinct from that documented for Apo Island off Negros Island (Russ and Alcala, 1996), where with a similar MPA there has been a significant positive correlation between mean predatory fish density and species diversity within the sanctuary and non-sanctuary and years of protection. On Apo, it appears that a spillover effect from the sanctuary to the non-sanctuary had, as of 1993, increased both fish species richness and abundance in the non-sanctuary near the sanctuary. Considering living coral cover has been steadily improving, the marked decrease in target fish abundance and species richness in the Balicasag non-sanctuary suggests that the area outside the sanctuary is subject to considerable, and probably increasing, fishing effort. This is not likely the case for Apo Island, which is relatively isolated.

Detailed analysis of national fisheries statistics (Smith et al., 1983; Barut et al., 1997; White and Trinidad, 1998; Pauly, 2000) and international trends (Silvestre and Pauly, 1997; FAO, 1999), demonstrate that fishing effort and efficiency have increased over time throughout the Philippines, and are in excess of what is needed to harvest maximum sustainable yield. In-depth interviews of resident Balicasag Island fishers and extensive rapid appraisals conducted in the vicinity indicate that fishing effort continues to increase while catch-per-unit-effort declines in this part of the Philippines. In fact, rapid appraisals reveal that daily fish catch has dropped from approximately 20 kg to 2.2 kg per fisher per day over a 20-year period (White and Trinidad, 1998). It is plausible, and worthy of investigation, that the presence of the MPA and initial improved fish abundances may attract fishers from off-islands (as there are no marine tenure or licensing systems to prevent this) as coral reef conditions worsen throughout the Philippines (Gomez et al., 1994).

While overall abundance of fish in the sanctuaries has been maintained, there is an obvious decline in target fish abundances in the Balicasag and Pamilacan sanctuaries. The fact that fish abundance within the sanctuary for all species has stabilized at pre-establishment levels and fish abundance for target species has declined is contrary to findings for other sites in the Philippines (Russ and Alcala, 1996; Christie et al., in press). Furthermore, certain non-target fish such as Anthids and Pomacentrids are becoming more abundant and account for an increasing percentage of the fish counted. In 1985, Pomacentrids and Anthids represented 26% and 49% of the total fish abundances in the Pamilacan and Balicasag sanctuaries respectively. By 1999, these two fish families accounted for 75% and 81% of all fish within the Pamilacan and Balicasag sanctuaries. Combined contributions from the target fish families Serranids, Lutjanids, Haemulids, Lethrinids, and Carangids to overall fish

abundances in the two sanctuaries remained very low, ranging between less than 0.5% and 2%. Poaching inside and intense fishing pressures outside sanctuaries may be reducing predatory fish, thus allowing Pomacentrids and Anthids, to proliferate. Also, worsening reef conditions at Pamilacan Island (Figure 5) may favor certain algae-grazing species.

Too small?
Declining target fish abundance and species diversity may also indicate that, because of intense fishing pressure in their surrounding areas, the sanctuaries on Pamilacan (14 ha) and Balicasag (8 ha) are too small to maintain fish populations both inside sanctuaries and on adjacent reefs.

While Apo Island’s sanctuary is of comparable size (11.2 ha) and design, it is more remote than either Balicasag or Pamilacan, more strictly enforced, and its residents now benefit from alternative income options associated with increasing tourism. Tourism revenues directly benefiting Apo Island residents were recorded in 1996 to be more than double the revenues due to fishing on the island from the sanctuary (Vogt, 1997; White and Trinidad, 1998). The presence of an alternative livelihood may have the effect of reducing fishing pressure, although at least one study has shown that fishers continue to fish while taking on added work responsibilities (Pollnac et al., 2001).

Who gets the benefits?
The benefits from the MPAs are multiple, but not all accrue to local island residents. Studies of similar reefs indicate that the MPAs on Balicasag and Pamilacan are likely to result in increased fish yields for fishers (White and Savina, 1987; Alcala and Russ, 1990; Christie and White, 1994); Russ and Alcala, 1996; Roberts et al., 2001). However, the increased yields for local island residents realized in the years immediately after MPA establishment appear to be dwindling. During interviews, 8 of 11 fishers from Balicasag said their fish catch increased from 1986 to 1992, but 9 out 15 reported their fish catch decreased from 1992 to 1999. In Pamilacan, 16 out 18 fishers claimed their fish catch increased from 1986 to 1999, but 4 out of 10 said their fish catch decreased from 1992 to 1999.

On both islands, informants maintain that non-resident fishers, not dedicating their own fishing grounds to MPAs, are benefiting as well. Similarly, dive boat operators bringing tourists from urban centers capture much of the profit associated with diving on Balicasag. While Balicasag residents benefit from alternative income derived from souvenir sales (mainly woven mats, t-shirts and deepwater shells), during the 8-day 1999 research trip, all commercial dive boats visiting Balicasag's MPA were from off island. As with Apo Island, the level of community commitment to reef management and ability to capture tourism revenues is correlated with benefits accrued to local residents (White et al., 1994; White and Vogt, 2000).

It is also likely that the erosion of community control over the Balicasag MPA has had a detrimental effect on its management. Comments during interviews and the steady decline in fish abundance from the peak in 1986, when community participation in the MPA implementing project and MPA enforcement were most effective, indicate that some poaching has taken place. In the case of Balicasag, it has been reported that some unscrupulous scuba divers have occasionally entered the sanctuary at night to spearfish. Residents complained of the heavy-handed influence of the Philippine Tourism Authority that displaced the original community-led management organization.

Unconfirmed reports indicate disgruntled local fishers may also be poaching. As with other common pool resources, the lack of local control, breakdown in local leadership, and the accruing of benefits to outsiders who do not share the burden of the MPA tend to encourage residents to violate the management regime (Cooke et al., 2000; Ostrom, 1992).

Nevertheless, the vast majority of informants still value the MPAs, perhaps since they realize at least some increase in yields. Approval ratings for the MPAs by local residents has increased for both islands. In 1999, 14 out of 14 residents approved of the MPA on Balicasag (up from three out of six in 1986), while 12 out of 12 residents approved of the MPA on Pamilacan (up from ten out of 12 in 1986). And, despite their criticism of how the Balicasag sanctuary is currently managed, residents desire an active role in managing the sanctuary and to capture revenues for their community.

Broader management needed
Balicasag, Pamilacan and other MPAs have provided models for coral reef management in the Philippines and elsewhere. The community-based MPAs of the Philippines have inspired similar efforts throughout the tropics, in the USA and elsewhere (Christie and White, 2000). They have served as learning laboratories that highlight the value of coral reefs and the potential of communities to manage their own natural resources.

Still, management of these MPAs needs to adapt to evolving circumstances. The above findings imply that, while no-take zones may be effective at maintaining fish abundance and diversity within their boundaries, it is probably unrealistic to expect that scattered, small no-take areas can maintain fish abundance and diversity on surrounding reef when high levels of fishing effort remove almost all spillover. Community-based MPAs, while an important management tool, should be utilized as one strategy within an overall scheme that addresses issues such as increasing fishing effort and efficiency and habitat degradation (Silvestre and Pauly, 1997; White and Vogt, 2000; Courtney et al., 2002; White et al., 2002). Without addressing the larger issues such as increased fishing effort and lack of community control in Balicasag's case, these MPAs will come under increasing pressure and are likely to ultimately fail (Sandersen and Koester, 2000<link to sandersen00>).

A conclusion that advocates exclusively for large MPAs in lieu of small, community-based MPAs is however not appropriate under the circumstances. Properly managed large MPAs, while more effective at protecting ecosystem functions, fish biomass and biodiversity (Roberts, 1997), may not be feasible in the Philippines, where poverty is widespread and there is a challenging institutional context. Community-based MPAs, despite their limitations, have been one of the few success stories in these difficult contexts. In line with recent suggestions (Allison et al., 1998; Boersma and Parrish, 1999; Carr, 2000), the intention of this analysis is to prompt improved design and a realistic understanding of these types of MPAs. Our recommendations for improving the management of these MPAs, and others in the region facing similar conditions, are as follows:

  1. MPAs such as Balicasag and Paimilacan need sustained support from the government and non-government sectors in a manner that does not marginalize local communities. In the Philippine context the most logical support unit is the local municipal government that authorize MPAs (White et al., 2002)
  2. Tourism should be well managed to minimize environmental damage and maximize local benefits with full collaboration between the government, private sector, and local communities. Local resort owners and dive operators need to assist in protecting the reefs they most frequent with paying guests. They should be willing to pay dive fees and install mooring buoys.
  3. The establishment of networks of MPAs, which can reduce the tendency of successful MPAs to attract other non-resident fishers, should be pursued. This should be done within a broader integrated coastal management planning process that can address inter-institutional matters.
  4. Management practices, such as licensing and marine tenure regimes, that limit overall fishing effort should be implemented. In the Philippines the Fisheries Code of 1998 mandates all local government units to license all fishers and to regulate their numbers to avoid unsustainable fisheries.
  5. Research monitoring fish populations, coral reef conditions, and socio-economic dynamics should continue. Fishery monitoring should be implemented. This research supplies community members and policy makers with useful information to support the adaptive management process. There are opportunities for the private sector through both local and international groups to assist with monitoring and assessing reef conditions and management effectiveness.


School of Marine Affairs, University of Washington, 3707 Brooklyn Ave. NE, Seattle, WA 98105-6715, USA

Coastal Resource Management Project, Tetra Tech EM, Inc., 5th Floor, CIFC Tower, Cebu City, Phillipines 6000


The authors acknowledge the Earthwatch Institute and its volunteers for making this research possible. They also thank the many hospitable local residents of Balicasag, Pamilacan, Panglao and Cabilao Islands. The participation of Patrick Christie has been supported by the National Science Foundation (Grant No. DGE-9809668) and the School of Marine Affairs, University of Washington. The Coastal Resource Management Project of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources, supported by the United States Agency for International Development (Contract No. AID-492-0444-C-00-60028-00) and implemented by Tetra Tech EM, Inc., supported the contributions of Alan White and Evelyn Deguit. Comments from three anonymous reviewers were invaluable.


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