Reef conservation in the Philippines – It’ll blow you away!

By Dan Bayley

How do you fix a problem like the global demise of an ecosystem? Well, It’s tricky! Over the last couple of years, the news has been full of dire reports about the death of coral reefs, following the third global-scale bleaching episode, which caused widespread coral mortality1. On top of these global issues, local impacts such as typically high levels of pollution, sedimentation, coastal development, destructive fishing, and resource extraction add to the woes of the reef.

One of the isolated coastal fishing communities found along the Danajon Bank.
Image copyright Dan Bayley.

When reefs are remote and these local impacts are reduced, the reefs tend to be more resilient to global disturbance2. The well-used phrase of ‘think globally, act locally’ therefore seems to make sense here; and at the very least, you would expect that a good starting block for healthy reefs would be for people to not use dynamite to catch their dinner…

A recent part of my PhD fieldwork was within the Visayas region of the Philippines, working on the Danajon Bank reef system that stretches along the northern edge of the island of Bohol and sits within the heart of the ‘Coral Triangle’ – the global centre of marine biodiversity. The area I was working in is a fairly undeveloped region of the Philippines, where the people rely heavily on the reefs, primarily for food and building materials, but also for the tourism industry they provide. In the Philippines alone, more than 1 million small-scale fishers depend directly on coral reefs for their livelihood3. The island of Bohol and neighbouring island of Cebu are home to high densities of people living in very close proximity to the sea, resulting in a lot of interaction between people and the reefs that surround them.

What lies beneath: Some of the hidden reefs of the Danajon bank.
Image copyright Dan Bayley.

For a number of years the practice of dynamite fishing has been widespread in this region, as well as further afield in countries such as Indonesia and Tanzania4. This fishing method (which is as crazy as it sounds) involves using hand-made explosives from cheap locally-sourced resources and dropping these into the water. The blast shockwave created either stuns or kills (or explodes) the fish, and bursts their swim bladder, which they use for buoyancy, causing them to float to the surface where they can be collected. The explosion will however sadly also kill pretty much all the other marine organisms in the immediate area of the blast, as well as shatter the reef structure itself.

While you might appreciate that this method is rapid and cheap as a fishing technique, it is perhaps not the most efficient or sustainable long-term! It is also extremely dangerous, particularly when using handmade options, and in many cases fishermen will end up losing limbs or their lives in horrific accidents.

Home from home! One of the Zoological Society of London’s research boats in the Danajon Bank.
Image copyright Dan Bayley.

Despite the practice being illegal, and the obvious dangers involved, it is still widespread, primarily due to the high immediate rewards and very limited alternative livelihoods available in this region. When this fishing method is combined with generally high resource use, pollution and a cheeky bit of climate change to boot, the local coral reefs are under a high threat of being degraded or perhaps even lost entirely.

In order to try and protect the reefs and fisheries in this region and to promote a more sustainable approach to fishing, Project Seahorse has been working with the local communities and government in the region to develop a network of marine protected areas (MPAs). First established by ZSL and the University of British Columbia in 1998, they have now set up 35 locally-managed MPAs along the Danajon Bank and across the Philippines. They have also been developing new research and management techniques for these habitats, whist offering training and employment to local people.

My work here was to assess the effectiveness of this protection through analysis of long-term monitoring data, and to collect structural data using some of these recently developed survey techniques. So, for the next month we travelled along the bank from the Eastern to Western extent, surveying inside and outside of the reserves, and praying no one went ‘fishing’ on top of us. At points this was not only terrifying (I may have added to the reef nutrient load at several points), but also deeply depressing as a reef conservationist hearing the reef literally crumbling around you!

A 3D modelled animation of Bilangbilangan reef, northern Bohol.
Created by Dan Bayley and Dr Andy Mogg (Scottish Association of Marine Sciences)

However, while law enforcement of illegal fisheries in much of the Philippines lacks the resources it needs to succeed, the work Project Seahorse is doing makes me optimistic. The difference between managed and unmanaged reefs was in many areas stark. Entirely annihilated and flattened reefs outside managed areas sat side by side with flourishing healthy reef areas inside them.

Dead dynamited reefs (left) vs healthy reefs, full of life (right)
Images copyright Dan Bayley.

Fish thrive in long term well protected areas, such as here in Balicasag marine reserve in southern Bohol.
Image copyright Dan Bayley.

Marine protected areas have been shown to be effective across the world, but only when adequately funded and patrolled5. Here in the Danajon Bank at least, the enforcement and community support seems to be working, for now, due to effective bottom-up management.The hope is that the resulting healthier reefs and fisheries inspire others to follow suit.

This is great news, but only part of the picture. Fishing of all types occurs in this region, and while other techniques do less damage than dynamite, there are still problems that need to be addressed. A great example of ZSL’s work to reduce other fishing impacts in the Philippines is Net-Works, a business that was innovatively created in response to the problem of discarded fishing nets. These nets continue to ‘ghost-fish’ in the sea, long after they have been thrown away, and also contribute to the growing problem of plastic pollution in the oceans. This is has become a huge problem in the Philippines and other countries around the world, with an estimated 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear abandoned in the ocean every year.

Now, instead of allowing these waste nets to clog up the sea and needlessly kill marine life, the business pays for locals to collect and sort netting from the sea, and then ships the nylon material to their factories where they are recycled into high-end carpet tiles for offices across Europe! With the profits made, local community banks have been set up to enable micro-financing schemes, and provide funding for further conservation work to continue. A win–win for both conservation and reducing poverty.

A discarded old net drapes across a Philippine reef.
Image copyright Dan Bayley.

Nets drying in the sun, ready to be used by Net-Works.
Images copyright Dan Bayley.

I found it really inspiring to see this kind of conservation success in what can sometimes be a fairly bleak area of research, particularly recently following the global coral bleaching events. It was also refreshing to see the level of engagement and enthusiasm from the local people working with the various projects. I’m looking forward to see how the region continues to develop and restore its fisheries and rebuild functioning reefs into the future. Let’s just hope they don’t blow it!


1. Heron, S. F., Maynard, J. A., van Hooidonk, R. & Eakin, C. M. Warming Trends and Bleaching Stress of the World’s Coral Reefs 1985–2012. Sci. Rep. 6, 38402 (2016).
2. Cinner, J. E. et al. Bright spots among the world’s coral reefs. Nature 535, 416–419 (2016).
3. Wells, S. & Ravilious, C. In the front line: shoreline protection and other ecosystem services from mangroves and coral reefs. (UNEP/Earthprint, 2006).
4. Pauly, D., Silvestre, G. & Smith, I. R. On development, fisheries and dynamite: a brief review of tropical fisheries management. Nat. Resour. Model. 3, 307–329 (1989).
5. Gill, D. A. et al. Capacity shortfalls hinder the performance of marine protected areas globally. Nature (2017). doi:10.1038/nature21708

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