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November 19, 2020

Community Conservation at Work

Coral Cay Conservation (CCC) was established in Belize in 1986 emerging from a need to take action and conserve coral reefs that were showing signs of degradation. With the Philippines located right in the heart of the Coral Triangle, this makes it a perfect project site for CCC. Tom Dallison, Head of Science, explains the reach and roots of CCC in Panaon Island.  

How did Coral Cay Conservation (CCC) end up working in Panaon Island? 

Coral Cay Conservation (CCC) has been active in establishing conservation projects in the Philippines since 1997. Some of these projects are found in the Southern Negros and the North Negros Occidental, where the Southern Leyte Coral Reef Conservation Project (LRCP) was established in 2002. The project was originally established in Malitbog and moved to the Municipality of Padre Burgos in 2004. It wasn’t until 2008 that Coral Cay Conservation moved to our current home in Barangay Napantao at the invitation of the Provincial Government of Southern Leyte and local councils.  

The LRCP was founded on the goal of securing the long-term benefit and food-security of the residents of the province and in order for us to protect natural resources, we needed to know what was there. This drive instigated 10 years of baseline surveys that extended throughout Sogod Bay and the western coastline of Panaon Island. This was our first true introduction to the diversity and status of the coral reefs surrounding Panaon.  

Can you tell us about the marine biodiversity in Panaon Island? 

The reefs surrounding Panaon are highly heterogeneous in condition, diversity and the services they provide. Characterized by a gentle sloping topography, the forereefs present an array of marine fauna from the smallest of nudibranchs and delicate Porcellanidae, to large ocean wanderers such as the whale shark and mola mola. However, despite some areas, such as Napantao presenting coral cover (50% in 2019) nearly twice as high as the national average (21%), the reefs all share one common characteristic: the majority of large herbivorous and high-trophic fishes are absent. Through years of heavy fishing and presence of the Live Reef Fish Food Trade, seldom are large groupers, snappers or parrotfishes observed coupled by the complete absence of Bolbometopon muricatum (green humphead parrotfish) and Cheilinus undulatus (humphead wrasse). For the former, there are, however, specific areas where these critical fishes can be observed, where their populations are growing with an increased presence of larger adults. Driven by the establishment of Marine Protected Areas, some reefs surrounding Panaon, are responding positively with highly diverse and complex coral cover driving marine biodiversity with protection, in turn, providing safe havens for fishes, regularly targeted by fisherfolk, to grow and reproduce.   

Can you tell us about Coral Cay Conservation’s information, education, and communication initiatives in schools in Panaon Island? 

Coral Cay Conservation runs many school education initiatives that all share a common goal – to raise awareness amongst, and inspire, the next generation on the threats faced by our oceans. It is our hope that through our programs, we will generate a society of environmental stewards that promote and practice the sustainable use of the natural world.  

Our three core approaches are described below:  

1) Reef Rangers 

The CCC site team with a group of new Reef Rangers. © Coral Cay Conservation

The Reef Rangers initiative is an immersive activity for children from schools in Southern Leyte to attend CCC’s base in Napantao. The activity runs throughout the day and provides children with opportunities to learn about coral reef conservation and coral ecology, putting their newly acquired knowledge into practice during snorkeling activities on our house reef in Napantao. The house reef is full of macrofauna, coral, and amazing shapes and colors, and on occasions, the Reef Rangers are even lucky enough to come face to face with whale sharks. Many of the children attending the Reef Rangers events, despite having stunning reefs on their doorstep, have never snorkeled before. Therefore, we are not only providing the opportunity for them to take the plunge. We are also ensuring they have a personal connection to the marine world. 

2) Seastar Environmental Award Scheme (SEAS) 

Santa Paz Norte principal and teacher with CCC team members after being awarded Gold Sea Star awards. © Coral Cay Conservation / Rachel Knowles

The Seastar Environmental Award Scheme (SEAS) is an educational program designed by CCC that aims to develop sustainable partnerships with schools whilst establishing an environmental ethos. We recognize the importance of developing an environmentally aware culture amongst younger and future generations to ensure the protection of the local environment and its resources. SEAS enables CCC to be more active within local communities by working directly with children and teachers. Through SEAS, we aim to inspire, raise awareness and increase accessibility to educational resources that pertain to marine and coastal conservation. Children and teachers are introduced to a range of topics: coral reef ecology; the importance of coral reefs; coral reef communities; food chains and webs; threats to coral reefs; coral reef conservation; MPAs; marine spatial planning; marine resource management; and sustainability. The SEAS curriculum is directed towards elementary students, however it can be tailored to suit any age class through the addition or removal of specific components.  

3) Community Days 

CCC scholar Jill gives her presentation about the indigenous school where she works in Mindanao. © Coral Cay Conservation / Matt-Bristol Marisol

Community Days are held by CCC in association with a local barangay, whose coastal waters have been recently surveyed, providing CCC with an opportunity to disseminate results and explain the reasons for our surveys as well building strong relationships with the local user group.  

Strong relationships that generate support not only for our efforts, but also for the implementation of marine spatial management plans are essential for any successful conservation program. During these community days, our project staff present videos and pictures collected from our surveys, as well as discussing some very basic results. Our staff will also use this opportunity to introduce basic marine spatial management plans, such as MPAs; what they are, why do we use them, and what are expected outputs?  

Combined with fun, engaging and educational games from local children, as well as one-to-one meetings with the Barangay’s local council, and captain, they are an excellent way to ensure that CCC receives support for their actions. More importantly, these ensure that local stakeholders understand, support, and receive, the benefits from our actions.  

How do you secure the involvement of the communities in Panaon Island and how important is their participation in your project goals?  

Coral Cay Conservation advocates for a bottom-up approach to conservation, working together with stakeholders, resource managers and governments to protect resources and develop management practices through transparent processes. It is crucial that the complex social, economic, and ecological landscapes are recognized and that the fine balance between environmental and societal needs are discussed. Each stakeholder places varying values on coral reefs and the nearshore environment, and it is crucial to ensure successful management, that each stakeholder’s values are considered, incorporated, and safeguarded.  

To ensure community involvement, we conduct community days to which we will present pictures, videos, and recommendations to all community members. These are also excellent opportunities to hold knowledge exchanges between our team and the local user group as well as answering any questions or concerns about our proposed management recommendations. We also sit down and discuss our recommendations with elected council members and local government units before submitting our technical assessments to the provincial government. By discussing our findings and proposals with each group of stakeholders, we can ensure high levels of involvement and transparency. 

What has been the impact of your project to the marine environment in Panaon Island? 

Since the project’s inception, we have undertaken over 2,400 independent surveys, collecting critical ecological, environmental, and anthropogenic data, allowing us to build a detailed picture of the current status of the area and assess any changes over time. These data have been utilized in establishing over 10 MPAs throughout Sogod Bay and surrounding Panaon Island ranging from 5 to 78 hectares. 

During Phase I of the Southern Leyte Coral Reef Conservation Project, from 2002 to 2012, we identified the presence of 257 species of hard coral in Sogod Bay, indicating that only 2% of the areas surveyed could be considered in ‘Excellent’ condition and only 5% of areas recorded the abundance of Grouper. During Phase II from 2012 – 2018, we assessed the coastal waters of 28 barangays laying 32.90km of transect to produce 21 MPA recommendations. Of these, 11 MPAs were declared. Our survey teams found that the dominant substrate was hard coral, with a mean composition of 26%, whilst recording the abundance of 159,523 and 107,527 target invertebrates and fishes, respectively. From 2018 onwards, we undertook our third phase of the program where we adopted a Before-After-Control-Impact (BACI) framework to assess the efficacy of established MPAs in protecting and restoring coral reef communities. Results are currently in publication and we hope to release our achievements in 2021.  

We look forward to working alongside Oceana in 2021 and the future to develop, implement and monitor large-scale conservation actions surrounding Panaon Island under the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (ENIPAS) Act of 2018.  

About the Author
Tom Dallison is Coral Cay Conservation’s Conservation Project Developer and Manager, predominantly focusing on coral reefs, associated ecosystems, and nearshore tropical fisheries. Tom is responsible for the scientific development and management of our citizen science-based conservation projects in the South Asia region. These projects generate real-time solutions to acute and chronic ecosystem threats that support livelihoods, promote human capital and protect biodiversity.