At the apex of the Coral Triangle lies the Philippines, comprising over 7,500 islands, with a coastline of some 36,285 km, and surrounded by six different seas. These waters are ranked third in the world in terms of marine biodiversity, hosting more than 460 reef-building coral species, the global epicentre of shorefish diversity, and a wide range of habitats that include 123 marine key biodiversity areas, which are recognized as being of international importance for biodiversity conservation. These ecosystems drive the economy of the country through tourism and fishing – the Philippines is the twelfth largest fishing nation in the world, with 40 to 60 percent of the total catch accounted for by municipal and subsistence fishers who operate small boats in shallow, coastal waters.
In the Philippines, sustainable management of coastal resources at the local level is under the mandate of local government units, from the level of provinces down to barangays (villages). As part of their natural resource management mandate, these units have been instrumental in establishing local-level marine reserves and no-take zones (under the Fisheries Code of 1998) that account for more than half of all marine protected areas in the county.
Many of these small protected areas have been established to address the immediate resource needs of local communities, and not to meet specific biodiversity conservation targets – for example, only 53 of the 123 identified marine Key Biodiversity Areas in the Philippines are represented in existing marine protected areas. They do not form part of the national protected area system, and receive little technical or financial support from national government agencies. This means that, considered in isolation, the ecological and financial viability of these individual marine protected areas is limited.
One approach for improving the effectiveness of multiple protected areas is to incorporate them into well planned ‘Marine Protected Area Networks’, where threats are identified and properly addressed. Within these networks, protected areas of variable spatial scale and levels of protection operate collectively and synergistically, giving them far greater potential to contribute to local biodiversity conservation and fisheries targets, and wider objectives such as connectivity and resilience to climate change. These networks are not simply any collection of sites, but ones that have been explicitly selected to achieve ecological representation and to support processes that are essential for maintaining livelihoods. A marine protected area network takes ecological, economic and social factors into consideration, and incorporates a full spectrum of management options – from full protection through to multiple-use areas with varying degrees of restriction on allowable activities.
The weight of responsibility for implementing the Marine Protected Area Network model in the Philippines lies with local government units, but, these institutions generally have had limited capacity for protected area planning and management, and a lack of scientific data to inform their management decisions.
The Government of the Philippines is addressing this situation through a UNDP-supported, GEF-funded initiative which was launched in 2015. This five-year project, called ‘Strengthening Marine Protected Areas to Conserve Marine Key Biodiversity Areas in the Philippines’ (or SMARTSeas for short), focuses on establishing a coordinated approach to conservation efforts at five sites: Verde Island Passage, Lanuza Bay, Davao Gulf, Tañon Strait, and Southern Palawan. The project is developing partnerships among key national government agencies, national and local conservation NGOs, local government units and people’s organizations, for strengthening individual marine protected areas and creating an effective network of ecologically representative marine protected areas that also serves community needs.