Endangered Napoleon Wrasse Spotted After Half A Decade In Palawan

The Napoleon wrasse is a known gentle giant creature distinguished by interesting patterns on its scales. It has hump over the head like a Napoleon's hat, which further protrudes as they age. No wonder it is one of the favorite fishes for divers to encounter across the world. Its meat is one of the most expensive luxury foods in the Southeast Asia.

The divers group Dive The World reported that the Napoleon wrasse is valued around USD 100 per kilogram in restaurants in Hong Kong. As the number of Napoleon wrasse decreases at a fast and alarming rate, its price inevitably increases. The fish is on the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) 'Red List of Threatened Species', and is listed for protection on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Fortunately, the endangered Napoleon wrasse, including the "Dugong" (which is classified by the IUCN as -vulnerable), have been spotted in Palawan, Philippines after half a decade of absence.

The return of the Napoleon wrasse

In Coron, Palawan, the Tagbanua Tribe and the fisherfolks community rejoiced after witnessing again the endangered Napoleon wrasse, the sea cow (dugong), more sea turtles and schooling fishes swimming in the waters of the Bulalacao Marine Protected Area (MPA). The year 2018 has been a successful milestone in the community folks efforts to restore their marine bidoversity, which was destroyed by enormous cyanide and dynamite fishing activities over the past decades.

Mr. Pacifico Beldia II, Marine Biodiversity Conservation Manager of Malampaya Foundation Incorporated (MFI), shares "We started to notice the remarkable recovery of fish stocks, especially the grazer species like parrotfishes, siganids, and acanthurids. These species groups tend the reefs to prevent algal overgrowth that smothers the live corals. We also started noticing the recovery of small pelagic fishes fusiliers and scads indicating the eradication of illegal fishing practices in both the No Take and Sustainable Use Zones. The succeeding years, we saw the endangered Napoleon wrasse in all of our permanent transect sites, and, this year, we saw the black tip shark in one of the No Take Zones, and a dugong in the seagrass bed just near the community wharf. Sea turtles sightings became more and more common as well."

A comprehensive biophysical assessment in 2012 determined that 90 per cent of the surveyed reef areas in Bulalacao were overfished and showed signs of damage from blast fishing and other unsustainable fishing practices like the use of compressor or huka fishing.

Taking the lead in conservation efforts is the MFI, the social arm of the Malampaya joint venture partners Shell Philippines Exploration, Chevron Malampaya LLC and Philippine National Oil Company-Exploration Corp., supported by the Coron Municipal Agriculture Office, the National Commission on Indigenous People, and the Tribal Leaders and Indigenous Peoples? Organization, all of whom intensively working against the persistent illegal and destructive fishing activities in the area.

In November 2014, the Bulalacao MPA was launched, which was graced by the tribal leaders of the Tagbanua tribe and the parish priest who led the blessing of the first boundary marker deployed in one of the No Take Zones. This is one of MFI's priority biodiversity conservation projects emphasizing the importance of grassroots representation, participative approach in decision-making, social preparation and advocacy, research, habitat restoration and conservation, and the provision of conservation incentives in the form of livelihood projects and skills training scholarships.

"The process of formalizing the conservation covenant with the Tagbanua Tribe and fisherfolk sector of Brgy. Bulalacao took MFI and the Coron Local Government took two years. The various sectors made sure that all socio-cultural restrictions are satisfied while doing all the resource assessments," said Beldia.

Emphasizing the significance of vertical and horizontal linkages in marine conservation initiatives, MFI engaged into joint activities such as rehabilitation of coral reefs and mangroves; species restocking; the construction of MPA guardhouses; training of community volunteers in enforcement as Bantay Dagat; training in supplementary livelihoods such as enviro-farming; and provision of the necessary supplies and equipment for such works. They also established collaborations with the academe such as with Western Philippines University in Puerto Princesa, Palawan.

"Limang taon ko rin ginagawa "yan. Araw-araw "yan, at pag iniwanan na namin yung isla, bugbog talaga siya. [I was doing that for five years. That was every day, and when we were done with an island, it was really destroyed.]," recalled Sabino Flores, the mild-mannered fisherman.

Over the past decades, the Bulalacao area was dominated by deadly fishing activities brought about by the sudden influx of irresponsible and unlawful foreign traders and fisherfolks. Cyanide and dynamite fishing, known as "bungbung" by the locals, were among the most destructive methods.

Formerly one of the known "ilegalistas", Flores used to own four fishing boats. He was raking in Php150,000 every 15-day cycle, catching live reef food fish like coral trout (known locally as suno), as well as lobsters. This heartless illegal fishing,which prevailed over a long period of time, left the marine waters with tremendous damage indicating a serious threat to the livelihood of the community people. A one-hour fishing then would yield a 10-kilogram catch; but now it?s just two kilos for an all-day fishing. It became even harder for locals as outsiders came to the hardly surviving seas for their resources.

Inspiring courage and strength to restore Bulalacao's marine biodiversity

Seeing the tremendous damage, Flores was bothered by his conscience, prompting him to help form the Bulalacao Fishermen Multipurpose Cooperative. He convinced his fellow fishermen to give up the bad habits and illegal methods of fishing that continuously destroy the marine ecosystem.

"Nabawasan nga ang kita, pero nawala sa konsensya mo yung nagpapakasarap ka, pero yung mga susunod sa iyo, wala nang matitikman. [I lost some income, but my conscience was freed from the guilt that there would be nothing left for the future generations to come]"

Eventually, he was elected as a barangay councilor in 1997; and in 2013, became the barangay chairman, levelling up the advocacy on biodiversity conservation in his community.

A most significant milestone during his term was the establishment of the Bulalacao Marine Protected Area (MPA) - 3,298 hectares of ocean divided into no-take zones and multiple use areas meant to safeguard the corals and fish stock around Bulalacao's 13 sites. With the help of the MFI, which has been doing marine conservation work in the municipality since 2012, the people of Bulalacao witnessed the progress of the MPA from a barangay resolution to a municipal ordinance, until its approval in November 2014.

Rogelio Pavia, a member of Bantay Dagat, said "Siyempre, hangad natin na hindi mapariwara ang karagatan natin. Paano naman kung lahat kami ay gumagawa ng mali" Hindi naman tama sa mata ng Diyos at ng batas. Basta proud ako sa ginagawa ko; dito ako nagkatibay ng loob at humuhugot ng lakas, dahil may nagsusuporta sa amin.? [Of course we don't want our ocean to go to waste. What would happen if we all did bad things? That wouldn't be right in the eyes of God and the law. I am proud of what I do; this is where I draw courage and strength, because we are getting support.]

Pavia and other fishermen in the locality now serve as members of the Bantay Dagat of Bulalacao MPA, tasked with protecting it from illegal fishermen, and patrolling the perimeters of the area to secure its continuous recovery.

Juanito Adezas Jr., a boat operator for the Bulalacao-based Hikari Pearl Farm and a volunteer diver for MFI's Marine Biodiversity Conservation Program, considers himself an eyewitness to the development that the MPA has brought to Bulalacao.

"Masaya ako dahil dumadami na ang isda, bumabalik na sa dati ang coral nakikita ko ang pagbabago," he says. "Wala nang magagawa yung mga ilegalista dahil may batas na, at gobyerno at barangay na ang kalaban nila." (I'm happy because there are more fishes and the coral reefs are coming back" I can see the difference. The illegal fishers can?t do anything because there is a law now, and they'd be going against the government and the barangay.)

Pushing for a healthier marine life in the ASEAN region

Dr. Theresa Mundita S. Lim, international biodiversity expert, marine conservation advocate, and Executive Director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), praised the participatory approach of the MFI in recovering the marine life in Bulalacao while strengthening the indigenous people and fisherfolks in the local community.

"We have to learn from this very valuable experience and encourage more collective efforts on local, national, regional, and global levels to conserve our marine biodiversity; promote responsible and sustainable use of resources and livelihood; save marine habitats; stop single-use plastics that harm our healthy waters; and continuously combat illegal and destructive activities," Dr. Lim emphasized.

Dr. Lim noted that the economic benefits of ASEAN's marine biodiversity are immense. It is estimated that the total potential sustainable annual economic net benefits per square kilometer of healthy coral reefs in the region ranges from USD 23,100 to USD 270,000 arising from fisheries, shoreline protection, tourism, recreation, and aesthetic values.

She said the continuous overexploitation of coastal and marine resources, habitat change, pollution, and climate change, among many other drivers of biodiversity loss, threaten the rich marine resources of the region.

"Studies revealed that in the Asia-Pacific region alone, a total of 11.1 billion plastic items such as shopping bags, fishing nets, diapers and tea-bags are entangled in coral reefs, which according to scientists of Journal Science, is likely to increase by 40 percent by 2025. Plastic pollution, aside from overfishing and climate change, puts our marine resources and habitats at faster and higher risk of deterioration," Dr. Lim said.

Dr. Lim cited examples of good practices in marine conservation. Indonesia, one of the ASEAN Member States, enacted a ban on plastics to curb marine degradation in its seas with the aim to reduce the single-use plastics like styro-foams and shopping bags by 70 percent in the Bali area.

In Singapore, the National Parks Board and private sector partners are embarking on a big project to restore its coral reef ecosystems in the Small Sisters Islands Marine Park. The project is part of efforts to protect the coral reefs around Singapore and enhance marine biodiversity in the island's surrounding waters.

In the Philippines, Dr. Lim lauded the recent pronouncement of President Rodrigo R. Duterte ordering the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to take the lead in a massive clean-up campaign for Manila Bay.

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