In the unassuming province of Negros Oriental in the Philippines, Roni Ben-Aharon walks you down the timeline of how Apo Island, the oldest continuous marine protected area in the Philippines which is home to 650 documented species of fish and over 400 documented species of corals, became a Marine Protected Area

The Road to Protection

Apo Island’s population reaches near a thousand, but infrastructure, access to fresh water and electricity are lacking, so a heavy reliance on the ocean has been instilled. Traditionally, the fishermen used the unsustainable practices of dynamite fishing and muroami – a destructive method of fishing that involves smashing large rocks or cement blocks onto the reef to scare fish into huge nets. In the past, no one saw this as a problem, as they assumed that the abundance would prevail. But gradually, their catch started depleting, and concerns developed.


The Marine Science Department of Silliman University initiated a marine research project in Sumilon Island. This project was led by Dr. Angel Alcala, a pioneer scientist who grew up in a fishing community in Negros. The project studied the effects a pilot marine protected area would have on the surrounding fishing communities.

The idea – to sell the concept of marine conservation to the local fishing communities as a method of improving yields – was revolutionary. Dr. Alcala’s theory was that a marine protected area would benefit the fisheries around it through two factors:

  1. There would be a spillover of adult fish from the protected area into the surrounding area, where the protected area functions as a shelter for fish to escape, mature and spawn
  2. Fish spawning in the protected area would produce larvae that is carried by the currents to other communities on the reef

As such, Sumilon Island became the Philippines’ first small marine protected area, where fishing and other human activity was banned.


Seeing political forces clouding conservation efforts, Dr. Alcala understood the importance of involving the community in marine protection efforts. So when he went to Apo Island in the early 1980s, he carried the gospel of marine conservation as a means to achieve greater fish yields for the local community. Those who heard him may have only been teenagers at the time, but today they have become influential political forces.


Despite the skepticism, the Apo Island community declared about 10 percent of the reef area of the southeast side of the island as a marine protected area.


Dr. Alcala and Garry Russ of James Cook University in Australia successfully proved that the spillover of adult fish from the marine protected area had a positive effect on the surrounding fishing communities.

Being able to prove this relationship not only validated the need for marine protected areas from a conservation perspective, but also attached a solid economic value to it. 

Unfortunately, the political support in sustaining the nation’s first marine protected area were inconsistent, and local elections marked the end of Sumilon’s protected area. 


Apo Island’s Marine Management Council was established, and declared the end of unsustainable fishing practices, allowing only line and spearfishing, traps and gill nets. It also appointed the Bantay Dagat – gatekeepers to enforce their no-take policy. These practices are still in effect to this day.


Dr. Alcala was appointed the Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources


Apo Island became part of the National Integrated Protected Area Act (NIPA) and under the jurisdiction of the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB), a national plan to conserve aquatic and terrestrial treasures.

Read the rest of this article in No.112 Issue 2/2018 of Scuba Diver magazine by subscribing here or check out all of our publications here.

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