Coral cause

  • 30/10/1996


on tiny Apo Island, off the southern coast of the Philippines, a sudden squall has chopped a tranquil sea into angry white caps. Though balanced by the outrigger, our small dugout rocks furiously as the waves toss us around. Luckily, Jesus Delmo, president of the Apo Island marine management committee, has just hauled in a full-grown jack, its silver body still flopping in the bottom of the canoe. Delmo is all smiles as he fires up the outboard motor, and we head towards the shore.

Back in his bamboo-and-lumber house, Delmo cleans the jack, one of Southeast Asia's tastiest reef fish, for the night's dinner. A decade ago, such a catch in the region would have been wishful thinking. In an effort to make a living from the sea, Apo's 100 fishing families had dynamited and over-fished the 106-ha coral reef that surrounds their island almost to depletion. In 1984, help came in the form of two social workers and a team of marine biologists from nearby Silliman University in Dumaguete City. Their message was unequivocal: protecting a small portion of the coral reef from all forms of fishing would help restore balance to the rest of the reef, allowing fish stocks to recover.

Rainforests of the sea "At first we thought they were crazy,' recalls Delmo."But at that point we had nothing to lose; we were already travelling 30 kms across the sea, at great personal risk, to fish off the coast of Mindanao.' In 1986, Apo islanders voted overwhelmingly to set aside just eight per cent of their entire reef as a reserve, where no activities of any kind except scuba diving and snorkeling would be permitted.

"It was the best decision we ever made,' beams Delmo. "Within two years, stocks of edible fish and shellfish had recovered to such an extent that we could catch all the fish we needed around our own island again.' The dramatic recovery on Apo is the kind of story that catches the attention of experts who follow the tragic decline of the world's coral resources.

From Palau in south Pacific to Australia, from south Florida to the Ryukyu archipelago of Japan, coral reefs

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