Against long odds and initially strong opposition, a pristine marine preserve in the Philippines has thrived for decades under the care of local fishermen. Warming waters threaten the achievement.
APO ISLAND, the Philippines — The large green sea turtles used to be terrified of humans, scuttling away as fast as they could.
“When the turtles saw people, it was like they saw a ghost,” said Mario Pascobello, a resident of Apo Island in the Philippines. “In the old days, they were being slaughtered here,” he added, with the island’s fishermen feasting on their flesh and their eggs.
Now, the endangered green turtles, largely herbivorous, peacefully graze in the shallows off Apo’s coast, unbothered by the fishermen, who share the waters with them.
But if the turtles are no longer menaced by the fishermen here, they do face another man-made threat: climate change.
“Climate change increasing the temperatures of coastal areas will kill corals and fish larvae,” said Angel Alcala, a marine biologist who started visiting the island in the 1970s. “Typhoons usually reached the Negros area only once in 10 to 15 years before, but now every four or five years a typhoon hits Apo.”
The community is still rehabilitating from the last typhoon, and in recent years it has had to restore parts of its reef damaged in bleaching events, when overheated seawater causes coral to expel the plantlike organism that live inside them, which causes the corals to not only turn white but also puts them at greater risk of death.
Apo, a tiny volcanic speck roughly in the center of the Philippines archipelago, is home to a pristine marine sanctuary in an area known as the Amazon of the Sea because of its biodiversity. The waters around the tiny island are thought to be home to around 400 species of coral.
The current harmony between the turtles and the humans was initially hard to come by.
The island’s community is made up primarily of fishermen, who heavily opposed the establishment of the sanctuary at first, worried that the conservation efforts would impose restrictions that would send an already impoverished place deeper into privation.
“I remember thinking that our island might be taken from us,” recalled Leonardo Tabanera, an elderly fisherman on the island. “What if we could no longer fish?”
But the marine sanctuary, established in 1982, has since become recognized as a successful example of how negotiation and compromise can balance the needs of a local population — one that depends on harvesting natural resources to survive — with global conservation goals.
“Which is important, the sanctuary, or the life of people who need to eat?” said Mr. Pascobello, one of the community’s leaders. “You need a lot of talks, you need a lot of discussion.”
At the urging of his mother, Mr. Pascobello said he became open to the sanctuary idea, but only if, he said, the community and conservationists could arrive at what he called a “win-win situation.”
After years of discussions, a solution was reached: The fishermen agreed to create a no-take zone — but only in an area they rarely used for fishing anyway.
“I suspected that the fishermen were amenable to us to protect the portion of the reef that was not really very productive from their own point of view,” Dr. Alcala said.
But the fishermen’s local knowledge of which part of the reef they could forgo was actually instrumental in helping protect the waters, Mr. Pascobello said, with the off-limits area essentially coming to function as a highly productive nursery for the area’s fish.
“If I ask the scientist, where does the grouper lay eggs? Nobody can answer me,” Mr. Pascobello said. “But if I ask fishermen, they know where the grouper lays eggs.”
By agreeing to leave completely undisturbed the part of the reef that played a key role in fish reproduction, Apo got the win-win it had been looking for.
“In 10 years, the fish biomass increased about three times,” Dr. Alcala said — a result good for the environment and for fishermen.
The Apo community of just under 1,000 residents has since helped numerous communities across the Philippines, and even in Indonesia, establish their own sanctuaries, always emphasizing the importance of taking local expertise into account as well as that of scientists.
“So you study for how many years? Even until doctorate! Here comes the fisherman, just finished grade 4, grade 5. But they know,” Mr. Pascobello said. “You just studied 10 years in school on that. They are there for 60 years. My god, you have to listen to them.”
The increase in fish biomass wasn’t the only economic benefit brought by the sanctuary: It has also brought tourists, with Apo becoming a destination for diving and snorkeling.
Analie Regalado grew up on Apo Island as the marine sanctuary was being established. Her parents, both fishermen, began to interact with and befriend tourists. Her mother sold seashells on the beach, where she met one tourist who told her that an education would be invaluable to her children.
“Mama listened,” Ms. Regalado said, despite some of her mother’s initial hesitancy about the expense of attending school.
To earn money, Ms. Regalado helped her parents fish, sometimes lugging their nets as she made her way to the flag-raising ceremony at school in the mornings. Through the family’s continued efforts, Ms. Regalado became the first person on Apo to study at Silliman University, a prestigious institution on nearby Negros Island — and she became Apo’s first homegrown marine biologist.
“If it wasn’t for the sea, my parents would not have met the need for our schooling,” Ms. Regalado said.
Instead of practicing marine biology, Ms. Regalado has chosen to teach in the local high school. “I owe Apo Island a lot so I need to give back,” she said. “I want to continue passing my knowledge to the next generation so that they can have their turn in stewardship.”
The fishing life is still central to the island’s identity.
The children of Apo fill the coastline at sunset. They gather around rock pools, examining the specimens in the clear water, picking out shells and rocks to sell, crustaceans to play with, and fish bait for their parents. They dive with goggles made at home and untangle fish nets; a few take small boats out on their own.
Apo’s conservation efforts have been maintained for 40 years, with limited outside financing. But they are now being threatened at a rapid pace by climate change, which disproportionately affects those living in poverty — and often hits hardest those communities that have contributed the least to carbon emissions, like those on Apo where most live without power for much of the day.
Apo’s fishermen like Mr. Tabanera are aware that climate change poses an existential risk, but the daily focus is on their immediate struggles to get by.
“We don’t have much to be proud of, because we are poor,” Mr. Tabanera said.
Still, he sees the continued presence of the island’s turtles as a good omen, a sign that Apo’s waters are healthy enough, at least for now, for fishermen to put food on the table. He’s also hopeful that the tourists who come to see the turtles will help spread the word about Apo, and the gloomy future it faces from climate change.
“Our dream here is however little we make from the sea, perhaps we can turn it into a living, no matter how small,” he said.
In his home, he preserves an altar of lucky fish hooks, each one rusted by saltwater and humid air. They remind him of some of the most bountiful catches of his life.
“Maybe someday,” he said, “everyone might be able to rise up.”