MPA groundwork

We have helped establish many MPAs, all of them community-based.

MPAs fare best if they are supported by the people who use that marine space. Indeed, MPAs without such support commonly struggle to achieve conservation gains or even to survive.

Focus on the central Philippines

Most of our MPA work has focused on Danajon Bank in the central Philippines. This double barrier reef (one of only six in the world) runs about 135 km along the western and northern coasts of the island of Bohol in the Visayas region. This is the epicentre of seahorse fishing in the Philippines. It is also a global centre for marine biodiversity and one of the poorest regions of the Philippines, with intense overfishing and habitat damage.

A sparsely populated reef on Danajon Bank in the central Philippines. © Luciano Candisani/iLCP

Integrating ecological and social expertise

In developing the basis for MPAs in the central Philippines, our staff formed joint teams of biologists and community organizers to work with fishing communities. Such integration of ecological and social expertise was central to the success of all our work in the region, and certainly for establishment of MPAs.

After a lengthy introductory phase to build mutual trust, our team would usually propose development of a People’s Organizations, the civil equivalent to the elected village councils. That allowed full consideration of many management options, including the idea of MPAs. In these discussions, we benefited hugely from fishers’ enthusiasm for change and eagerness to establish MPAs, as well as the real receptiveness of many village councils. It was, after all, entirely up to the villagers whether they engaged with the idea of an MPA as we never impose or promise.

We later conducted an anthropology study in the central Philippines, which revealed that villagers in the Philippines embraced MPAs so readily partly because of a long history of tenure in the ocean, where particular families had effectively owned parts of the inshore waters. Certainly, villagers were quick to deploy their knowledge to plan MPAs that suited their own communities.

Communities generally minimised their sacrifices when they set up MPAs. For the most part, villagers chose to place MPAs in areas that were no longer of huge value to fisheries, largely because the area had been fished down. While less than ideal biologically, such an approach offered three advantages: the village could set aside a larger area for the MPA, fishers did not lose much catch, and any improvement was easy to detect.