El Santo Niño of the coral reef

By Dr. Amanda Vincent

I heard a profoundly important yet humorous anecdote at the workshop we are leading in Cebu, Philippines.  Project Seahorse has gathered colleagues from many sectors for a discussion around our research findings on marine protected areas (MPAs) under the mantra of “MPAs in the Philippines: Ever more, ever better.”

We are delighted that some Roman Catholic priests from Sea Knights are participating in the workshop. This is a group of ocean-loving priests; many of them are scuba divers. One of the Sea Knights, Father Tito, is also the Executive Director of the Santo Niño de Cebu Augustinian Social Development Foundation.

Father Tito told us this wonderful story of how the Church took a very sacred statue of the Santo Niño (the infant Jesus) from the basilica in Cebu to islands on Danajon Bank, the area of the Philippines where we have done so much of our MPA research and management. The arrival of the Santo Niño created a very festive occasion, with huge village gatherings, boat parades and street processions.

During the celebrations, the Church showed a film on environmental responsibility, motivated by its desire for stewardship of God’s creation. A large international fisheries management aid project on the reef later reported a notable decrease in poaching rates in the villages that the icon visited.

Thereafter, the municipal government of Bien Undo, Bohol placed two replica icons of the Santo Niño and the Blessed Virgin Mary underwater in an area with considerable illegal fishing, primarily using dynamite. The mayor of this municipality took the initiative because he is himself a Sea Knight.

Apparently the fisheries abuse disappeared because, after all, you do not blow up the Infant Jesus, or His Mother. Such a change is especially important because both icons lie in a critically important newly established MPA full of corals and fish that are vulnerable to dynamite fishing.

What other powerful conservation gains might emerge from collaboration with strong religious and faith-based groups?

Dr. Amanda Vincent is the director of Project Seahorse.