Islet Apo in the Philippines – the story of a protected area full of life


Written by: Matea Špika

I am a passionate traveler – and a nature protector. When my vacation days and financial situation allow it, I try to combine my two passions. Often on my travels I visit protected areas, I get to know the work of other nature protection associations – some like Sunce on the other side of the world – and I get frustrated by threats that I recognize better than the average tourist due to the nature of the work I do… I am most happy when I come across a marine protected area that is a real example of effective protection in practice, proof that things can really work. If I get the chance to dive in such an area, then the experience is complete.

This is the story of one such protected area, the small island of Apo in the Philippines of only 12 hectares, with a little less than 1000 inhabitants.

What was the path of this islet towards a successful marine protected area?

Somewhere in the 70s, the situation was as follows: the island had no access to water and electricity, and the rest of the infrastructure (in terms of schools, docks, etc.) was also missing. The local population traditionally engaged in fishing, but fishing practices were destructive (eg dynamite). Back then, no one saw it as a problem because it was assumed that abundance would prevail. However, gradually the catch became smaller and smaller, and the journey to the fishing post office, as well as the fishermen’s concerns, increased.

Around that time, scientists from nearby Siliman University launched a pilot project to establish a marine protected area to monitor its impact on the surrounding fisheries. The focus of the project was on the restoration of corals and fish stocks. The concept that scientists presented to fishermen, that by protecting the marine area they will primarily benefit due to the “spillover” and “recruitment” effect, was revolutionary at the time.

Nevertheless, years and years of intense dialogue between fishermen and scientists have borne fruit. In 1982, 14 island families declared strict protection of about 10% of the fishing area around the islet itself (450 m along the coast and 500 m from the coast). These families volunteered to fish outside the area. Only a few years later, the results of the protection were already so visible that the entire island community got involved in the protection, with the support of the local government. They establish the Island Council for the Management of the Marine Protected Area, which adopts the legislative framework for the formal establishment of a strict protection zone and the prohibition of destructive fishing practices in the surrounding fishing sea. They also establish a surveillance service whose main task is to monitor the entry of “foreign” ships into the protected area. Local fishermen from the islet of Apo no longer worry them, sustainable fishing has become an integral part of their culture of living. What is fascinating is that already in the 70s, the Philippines saw the importance of involving the local community in the management of protected areas.

The protection of the Apo islet inspired many and prompted the declaration of other marine protected areas throughout the Philippines, as many as 1,500 of them. Only many years later, in 2018, the Philippines created a legislative framework to include such local initiatives in the National System of Protected Areas.

Today, Apo is a diving destination

In the meantime, the islet of Apo has become a real diving destination. Its seabed is home to more than 615 species of fish and 400 species of coral, which is a staggering number considering that 421 species of coral have been recorded in the entire Philippines. There are only a few modest accommodation options and one diving center on the islet, but you can also dive with centers from nearby coastal towns. The number of divers is controlled, and buoys are placed at the locations because anchoring is prohibited due to the impact on corals. By paying a fee, divers help preserve this area and support the life of the local community, which invests these funds in improving life on the island (access to education, healthcare, electricity and water).

And can you even imagine what it’s like to dive in an area that has been closed to all forms of extraction for 40 years? Literally like in an aquarium, huge shoals of enormous fish, sea turtles, branched and multi-colored corals, sponges… There is so much of everything that sometimes you can barely see a bit of sea blue from the living world that surrounds you. For me, diving on Apo Island is still one of the best diving experiences, and there were such locations all over the world.

Since I visited Apo exactly seven years ago, I wanted to check the situation on the ground before publishing this text. I recently recommended diving on the Apo island to a young couple.

– The experience of diving in the sea of Apo Island is wonderful. The amount of different creatures, the color and architecture of corals is incomparable to other natural and civilizational phenomena that we have encountered so far. Around Apo Island, we first encountered a diving area fenced off by buoys, where navigation by motor boats is prohibited. This is a practice that, in our opinion, should be practiced more often in the world. – Dora and Granit told me after visiting the island.

What do the islanders say about protection?

My impression is that the islanders believe in protection, and they have been monitoring the data for many years that proves to them that protection works. Fishermen say that in the past their strategy was to fish in one area and then just move on to another. But now they are determined to ensure fishing in this area remains sustainable, for the sake of the quality of their lives, but also the quality of the marine ecosystem. Such a local initiative built the spirit of the island community and launched numerous other projects that contribute to the standard of life, from infrastructure development, children’s education, strengthening the capacity of women and young people on the island… And how important is the protection of the sea to them, and how much they live it, is visible at every step. The truth is that the local community survived only because the fish survived. And that’s why this graffiti that welcomes visitors shows the extent of the connection between man and nature – Apo lives if they live!

And what about Adriatic? Such zones in the Adriatic virtually do not exist. Therefore, support their creation in the future, because this idea is no longer revolutionary, but necessary.