Marine Conservation Philippines is located near the small town of Zamboanguita near Dumaguete, Negros Oriental in the Philippines. This area contains some extremely diverse reefs, some pristine with gorgeous shoals of tropical fish, some highly damaged and recovering. This range of quality allows for interesting studies on the differences between coral reefs in different states of health. Typhoon Haiyan caused a lot of damage in 2013, and MCP are using this as an opportunity to understand how coral reefs recover over time.

Since the majority of work and data collection is carried out on th reefs around the Central Visayas region, SCUBA diving is a requirement. MCP is fully committed to training and producing the best quality divers possible, such that further damage is prevented to the environment and work can be carried out effectively and efficiently. For this reason, they offer a full spectrum of PADI SCUBA training courses virtually free, the only charge being the textbook.

MCP also works in conjunction with other organisations who share the same goals, and have the same vision. ZooX, GreenFins and Project Aware have previously been affiliated with MCP in order to help protect the oceans and conserve them for the future.

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Tell me about the science!

Baseline Study

To determine whether the ocean is healthy is not as simple as just looking at it and saying “yeah looks colourful enough to me”, or “damn that’s empty”! Sure you can get some idea, but a colourful scene may not be balanced, and an empty bed of sand might actually be very important in some places. The best way to do this is to use indicator species. These are particular animals which generally follow these rules:

  • Are sensitive to a particular aspect of the ecosystem and will reflect that in a change
  • This change needs to be easily identifiable
  • This change needs to occur over a short period of time
  • They need to be easy to sample or observe

Some species of fish are excellent indicator species. MCP decided to use a baseline abundance survey to detect which species would be best to use as indicators. They now have several genera of fish which can tell us about the ocean health through a variety of different changes: abundance, functional group, diet, juvenile habitat, size, family, position in the water column and spawning behaviour are just some of these.

One thesis student at MCP is already studying a fish species which depends on seagrass and mangroves as a nursery habitat. Mangroves and seagrass provide shelter and safety from predators for juvenile fish. This student will then see if the number of adult fish on the coral reef changes in relation to the distance from that nursery site. Basically, will more fish survive if their nursery is closer to the reef? This uses number of fish seen as the indicator, possibly the most obvious change to study. This kind of information is important when determining which are the most important areas of the reef to protect, as protecting the ocean can be expensive and time-consuming.

Substrate Studies

Understanding the composition of the ocean floor and how this is changing is also a great indicator as to the type of habitat you have, how it is changing and what you might find there. For example a sandy bottom will harbour an entirely different set of species to a bunch of boulders. Also over time these habitats may change or even replace each other through erosion and deposition. So on all the dive sites at MCP, volunteers are mapping the types of substrate that can be found using 300m underwater transects (essentially a long line where measurements are taken at regular intervals). By adding in-depth data and satellite imagery, they should be able to build up a really cool 3D image of each dive site with what the sea-floor looks like, and therefore what might be found there. Load it into a snazzy graphics program and hey, you may even be able to take a virtual swim around the place!

MPAs (Marine Protected Areas)

So a Marine Protected Area is essentially an area of ocean where human activities are regulated to varying degrees. This can provide many beneficial ecological and human consequences:

  • Protect rare, endemic or threatened species
  • Protect habitats important for the survival and life-cycle of economically important species
  • Maintain genetic diversity and long-term welfare of marine systems
  • Provide a secure system that can be used for scientific and ecological research
  • To provide jobs for local communities, whilst educating about the importance of the marine environment and the benefits that a sustainable ocean can bring them.
  • Protect places of cultural, historic and aesthetic value for current and future generations.

In order to do this, the area of importance must be agreed on, and the larger this area is then the upkeep cost is inevitably higher. MCP is currently in the process of establishing an MPA in Lutoban, the closest dive site and village to their base. They are currently working alongside the Barangay (local administrative division) to demarcate the area to be protected, establish laws and enforcement as well as ways to monitor the ongoing progress of the MPA. They already have funding, and it seems everything is in motion to make this a reality. The total area should be about 90ha with a ‘no take’ zone of 40ha.

Outcome so far?

Early information has told MCP that there is a large and very significant difference between the biomass and biodiversity of protected and non-protected areas of ocean. As well as this there are constant pressures on the surrounding ocean which are not sustainable, MCP’s job will be to continually try to identify and help resolve or reduce some of these pressures. Despite this, the local community is already surprisingly aware of the damage that can be caused – this is a great help to MCP as they can be sure to have a lot of support from the locals where this otherwise might not be the case. Aside from working with schools and planting new mangrove trees, locals are helping establish and increase the size of MPAs, as they further understand the benefits that this can bring to their lives.

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Outreach and Volunteering

Mangrove Nursery and Local Schools

As I have previously mentioned, mangroves are a unique, essential and precious forest type that is very important for the welfare of surrounding reefs. They provide protection for a wealth young fish from larger predators as well as acting as a giant sieve preventing detritus and silt from suffocating the reefs around.

MCP is working with the local community to build a mangrove nursery and reforestation effort along the edge of some of the dive sites in the local area. Getting local kids to plant mangrove trees is a fun way to get children involved in science and conservation from a very young age, especially in a country where ecology needs more recognition. Behind the scenes MCP are looking more scientifically at the optimal replanting techniques.

MCP also work with Zamboanguita Science Highschool once per month. Here the children can take part in fun scientific activities and talks. Groups regularly come to camp for some more hands-on activities. Aside from this, MCP completes ongoing cleanup operations such as ghost-net removal from the reef (see top image), beach and dive site litter sweeps and dive centre examinations.

Volunteer

MCP is a young, fresh and ambitious organisation. The founders have dedicated everything to it which is one of the reasons for their great success. It is an ongoing initiative, with short term goals that will develop into long term projects. Self monitored and self organised, one of their greatest assets is that they are the creators of their own success, and with extremely determined and passionate staff, I can see them hugely benefiting the surrounding ocean and community. The majority of funding comes from volunteers, and the money that does not go into the lodging goes directly towards current projects. Volunteers are also essential knowledge and manpower to help MCP reach their goals.

A volunteer would spend their time at camp which is based within a botanical garden, it is a beautiful environment. With 2 dives a day for 6 days a week, rest days, special dive trips and science lectures, MCP offers plenty to get involved in. Accommodation is beautifully hand built with continuous site expansion and development. Visit the website and email to enquire about volunteering, they’re extremely approachable.

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As MCP grow and receive more physical and monetary help from volunteers they will be able to implement larger MPAs, conservation initiatives and educate more people about the importance of the oceans. For further reading visit their website, but I believe this is just a small portion of far greater things to come from this fantastic and determined organisation.

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