Tropical Marine Protected Areas

Apo Island Marine Sanctuary

The Apo Island Marine Sanctuary was established in 1982 (ICCA Registry, 2010). It came into proposition due to notably declining fish stocks that were being exploited due to destructive fishing practices, such as dynamite fishing. The fisherman increased their working hours, and practices such as dynamite and cyanide fishing became more extensive in response to the declining stocks (Marten, n.d.). The goal of this no-take reserve is to increase fish populations and overall biodiversity in the region (Marten, n.d.). It is hoped that a spill over effect will occur and fish can develop and mature within the sanctuary and then migrate out into waters where they can be legally and sustainably harvested. Fishing drives the economy on Apo Island and the local community actively helps manage the sanctuary to ensure healthy future fish populations. Today it is amongst the top 100 dive sites in the world and scuba diving is a massive source of income for the community of Apo Island (Van Beukering et al., n.d.).

Geographic Location

Apo Island is located in the central Philippines and is approximately 1km2 in size. The marine sanctuary runs along 0.5km of the islands South East coast and has a area of ~7km2 (ICCA Registry, 2010). Encompassed in the marine sanctuary are valuable healthy coral reefs that act as a nursery to many varieties of marine life. See the below map from MPAtlas that further outlines the geographic location of the Apo Island Marine Sanctuary.

Scientific Basis

The idea of a fully protected no-take marine sanctuary was first proposed by researchers at Silliman University after a notable decline in fish stocks was documented by local fisherman and researchers alike (Russ & Alcala, 1996). The idea was to protect key nursery areas of vital coral ecosystems to benefit the reef health an ecology as well as the livelihood of locals (Russ & Alcala, 1996).

Reef System

The fringing Apo Island reef system is thought to contain ~400 species of the suspected ~450 species of Philippine corals (ICCA Registry, 2010). For an extensive list of identified reef species in the Philippines, please click here. The reef acts as a nursery to many of the threatened reef species and allows fish to mature without the threat of being harvested. The protection of the healthy area of coral also means that there will be a high rate of larval recruitment from healthy reefs. The larvae may then spill outside the sanctuary bounds and establish new coral elsewhere (Marten, n.d.). The same is to be said for fish -  when they mature in this area, they then wander outside of the sanctuary where they can be sustainably fished, thus benefiting the adjacent community (Roberts & Hawkins, 2000).

Species at Risk

Many of the fish and coral species housed within the sanctuary are thought to be in relatively good shape thanks to the continuing monitoring of fish species from local fisherman. Species within the protected area have increased 8-fold since its implementation (Russ & Alcala, 1996). This was seen after 11 years of protection, and after 9 years, areas outside of the reserve started to show significant increases in numbers (Russ & Alcala, 1996). For this to occur, the rate of spill over must exceed the rate of removal. The below figure outlines the evidence of spill over from the Apo Island Marine Sanctuary to the adjacent waters and is taken from a study by G. Russ and A. Alcala.
A notable species at risk protected within the marine sanctuary is the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). Sea turtles are very important grazers for this ecosystem. They keep harmful macroalgae - that can take over reefs - in check. They also graze on sea grass beds, trimming the sea grass and maintain a healthy growth rate. The decline in seagrass habitat is thought to be linked to declining green sea turtle populations worldwide.


The unique and interesting part of the management strategy involved with the Apo Island Marine Sanctuary is that it is almost completely managed by local fishermen. After the fisherman adopted and understood the findings outlined by researchers at Silliman University, they formed the Marine Management Committee. With that said, the National Integrated Protected Area System (NIPAS) consisting of members from national, provincial, municipal and local levels - has the ultimate say into what goes on in the marine sanctuary, though they need little involvement due to the success that the locals have had in managing this resource. Many locals are not supportive of this management intervention because they have had success in the past without them and the fact that the national government now takes 25% of earnings generate from entrance fees to Apo Island waters (Marten, n.d.).

Conflicts and Current Status

Due to the high degree of biodiversity now contained within the bounds of the Apo Island Marine Sanctuary, ecotourism has become a new economic driver in the community of Apo Island(Vogt, 1994). Tourists flock from all over the world to scuba dive in the sanctuary's crystal clear waters and experience a multitude of coral and fish species. Ecotourism is a great way to promote and fund a marine protected area, but it also comes with its own set of inherent challenges. Tourism must be conducted in a sustainable manner. Limits are put around the number of visitors and dives on the reef each year to minimize stress on fish and accidental breakages of coral (Marten, n.d.). It is also important to note that jobs within the tourism industry should be given primary to locals. There has been some conflict between the tourism industry and local fishermen, as the fishermen believe that divers cause fish to scatter and make them harder to catch - as a result no dives are permitted within 50m of fishing activity and diving is prohibited on the best fishing grounds(ICCA Registry, 2010). For more information on how ecotourism has contributed to the local economy and the role of the marine sanctuary in the community, please click here. See below for a flow chart of the various drivers and factors involved with this marine sanctuary.

Recent Developments

In response to the booming tourism industry, some small resorts and accommodations have been built (Marten, n.d.). The construction of more infrastructure and an influx of human activities leads to an inevitable increase in sewage. This sewage issue has to be closely monitored and island populations are being controlled and the local community is being educated on the adverse effects of an increasing population - so families are becoming smaller(Marten, n.d.). The most notable new infrastructure is The Apo Island Beach Resort. Below is a map outlining the various dive sites surrounding Apo Island. These dive sites are the main draw to tourists - note that there is still a dive site in the protected area.


Click here for the management plan and history of the Apo Island Marine Sanctuary!

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