Feature Story

The sea is the future: expanding coastal and marine protection in the Philippines

From illegal fisher, to reformed leader, fostering coastal and marine protection through a sea change of partnerships, empowerment, and inclusion

June 26, 2020

Fish caught in net by compressor diving
Philippine fisher compressor diving. Photo: Alex Hofford

For Quirsito ‘Bok’ Cajegas, a fisher in Davao Gulf, Philippines, staunch advocacy of marine conservation comes with the territory.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Before his reformation, Bok was a self-described illegal fisher. For 23 years, Bok employed illicit compressor fishing methods, and once opposed the establishment of a marine protected area (MPA) in Barangay Bato Sta Cruz, Davao del Sur.

Compressor diving - ‘Pa-aling’ in Tagalog - refers to improvised fishing gear consisting of a net set at coral/shoal reef areas whereby fish are driven towards the net by means of a cloud of air bubbles generated by above-water compressors.

Breathing through a thin plastic air hose connected to a rusty air compressor on the boat above them, these fishermen dive down as deep as 20, 30, and even 40 meters in their efforts to drive fish into waiting nets.

This form of fishing is dangerous to sea life, the fishers themselves, and contributes to overfishing.

Profile photo of Quirsito 'Bok' Cajegas
Quirsito 'Bok' Cajegas, 49 years old, father of six and ocean advocate. Photo: DENR-SMARTSeas Project

A reformed leader

Now as chairman of the Bato-Tagaytay Reef Fish Sanctuary management council, and the elected Fisherfolks Regional Director of Davao Region, Bok knows that ocean health is key for this planet and its people to thrive. 

Bok notes, "I am very proud of our marine protected area. I was once a violator, an illegal fisher. From compressor fishing, I am now a protector of our MPA."


For 2020, World Oceans Day united conservation action to build a global movement calling on world leaders to protect 30% of our blue planet by 2030. This critical need is called 30x30. By safeguarding at least 30% of our ocean through a network of highly protected areas, we can help ensure a healthy home for all.

The Bato-Tagaytay Reef Fish Sanctuary, a 93.6 hectare marine protected area, is heeding the call - and actively protecting different marine ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs in Passig Islet, Davao del Sur.

The Bato-Tagaytay MPA is part of the Davao Gulf MPA Network established through SMARTSeas PH, a project led by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and supported by UNDP in the Philippines and financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). In Davao Gulf, the project was implemented with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) - Philippines in partnership with the Davao Integrated Development Program.

Bok is proud to be part of these conservation efforts and in September 2019, the Bato-Tagaytay MPA was cited as one of the finalists under the category of Best Locally-Managed MPA in Para El Mar, an award winning body recognizing the top MPAs in the country.

Clown fish
Clown fishes of the Tañon Strait Protected Seascapes. Photo: Kristina Luz Tapales

Dwindling fish catch

It is a common enough story, nowadays, that fishers need to venture further out to sea in order to catch sufficient quantities to support their families.

Luzviminda Buñag, 57, a fisher from the village of Caguisan, noted that in the 1980s, her family could easily catch 20 kg of fish in a single outing. Now, fishers must time their forays for late at night, and don’t return until the early hours of the following morning.

Luzviminda said that on many days, there is no catch whatsoever. Some of the fishers now resort to pawid-fashioning (weaving thatching material from the leaves of the nipa palm) to make ends meet; the trade generally earns PHP100 per day (less than $2). Faced with meagre catches and unattractive alternatives, some have turned to illegal fishing in an effort to provide more for their families.

Surging threats

With 60% of the country’s population living in coastal zones, a large portion of the population - and a majority of the country’s economic sectors - are highly dependent on local ecosystems for food and income generation. The country’s population grows exponentially, and correspondingly, so does the intensity of the demands placed on coastal and marine areas.

Exacerbating this situation, climate change continues to take its toll.

Championing the catalytic waves

Recognizing that the Philippines’ rich marine biodiversity is of utmost global and national biological and economic significance, the country’s DENR, through its Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB), has been making important progress on achieving synergies through the strengthening of MPAs and establishment of marine protected area networks (MPANs).

Partnering with communities for effective MPA network management

Getting communities to work with MPANs, a key indicator of behavior change, is one strategy to ensure sustainability through on-site stewardship. Social marketing, capacity-building on enforcement, empowerment, and inclusion of indigenous peoples in decision making, and building the foundation for Biodiversity-Friendly Enterprises (BDFEs) have all increased community participation in MPAs and MPANs.

"Through [DENR] SMARTSeas PH, my awareness on marine conservation increased. My capacity as a leader was strengthened with new knowledge and skills I acquired in the trainings. I became a deputized fish warden. I understood more about implementation of fishery laws. I became more vocal of the issues of fishers and marine conservation efforts in our community," said Bok.

Group of female Philippine fishers
Female fishers in Palawan are leading some of their communities and actively participate in marine conservation efforts. Photo: DENR-SMARTSeas Project

As a member of the Bato Small Fisherfolks and Ferry Boat Association (BASFFA) in Davao Gulf, Bok was one of a select team of members who received ecotourism training through the SMARTSeas PH project.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a significant blow to the ecotourism sector and the livelihoods of those who depend on it have been greatly affected.

Bok said that, “since the onset of the global health emergency, BASFFA members have suffered from experiencing zero income.”

Although the repercussions from COVID-19 present a major and evolving challenge, as countries start to plan ways to build back better, protecting nature and oceans for people and the planet is imperative.

Reaping the gains from MPANS

The evidence of results from effective MPAN management cannot be denied.

In Davao Gulf, three out of the nine marine protected areas surveyed in 2019 showed an increasing trend in total fish biomass: Bato MPA (18% increase), Mabini Protected Landscape and Seascape (31%), and Sanipaan MPA (45%).

Fish biomass and diversity are likely correlated with general habitat condition, and coral species diversity and cover in particular.

Landscape photo of Natangco
The entire island of Natangco in Marinduque is a declared marine protected area and closed to any fishing activity. Photo: DENR-SMARTSeas Project

Forging linkages for MPA networks

From 2015 to 2020, a total of 2,182,301 hectares of municipal waters now have effective management through collaboration between local government units.

These partnerships, and this coordinated management, has helped to improve the biophysical, socio-economic, and institutional connectivity within the broader framework of Coastal Resources Management.

Working together means coordinated and more effective implementation – it also has made it possible to scale-up these important conservation interventions.

Concrete sea of solutions

To ensure these bright spots in MPA and MPAN conservation and protection continue, the DENR-BMB together with the Department of Agriculture – Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA-BFAR), and Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) are scheduled to ratify a joint memorandum circular on guidelines of MPAN establishment – a great leap towards ocean action in the Philippines.

These catalytic waves were made possible through the DENR-SMARTSeas PH project and people like Bok.

This piece was originally published on Exposure by UNDP Ecosystems & Biodiversity.