The value of marine reserves: lessons from the Philippines

By Dr. Heather Koldewey

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Watching Hugh’s Fish Fight last week felt very familiar as he shared his experience in the Philippines — I have just returned from a trip there myself.

I, too, have seen the devastating effects of dynamite fishing and the extreme pressures placed on the ocean by a population of 99 million people who depend on it for food. It’s not easy when you live below the poverty line, have a family to feed; and the ocean is no longer providing the supply that it used to in years gone by.

I have also been heartened seen the ever-expanding network of marine reserves across the Philippines. There, everyone has heard of them and knows that they are important and necessary. Nationally, over 1,000 exist and we have helped set up 34 marine reserves that are managed by local communities. The most recent one happened with support from Selfridges through our innovative Project Ocean partnership.

In the Philippines, marine reserves are widely accepted by communities as a simple solution to reduced catches. In the absence of a social security system or other options, I have seen first-hand how communities embrace marine reserves — often referring to them as ‘banks’ or ‘security’ for their future.

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They realise that without setting aside areas of ocean, fish will have no place to live, grow and breed — and they are right. Our scientific surveys, that have monitored these reserves for over a decade, have shown that they do work, generating more fish and healthier habitats. Limitations in the Philippines are either funds or knowledge on how to go about setting up a marine reserve, not debate as to whether they should happen or not.

Coming home to the UK, I am struck by the contrast with the current process of establishing Marine Conservation Zones. After investing over £8 million and three years of stakeholder consultation to define 127 sites for MCZs, the government is currently only considering implementing 31 in the first stage. Not only does it now look like this figure will be further undermined – but it is also likely that some form of fishing will continue throughout all of the MCZs, bringing into question their effectiveness as protection areas.

It seems strange that this figure is overshadowed by the Philippine’s 34 marine reserves — fully protected areas — set up by one small organisation working with poor, local communities who have nothing but hope. We need to learn from their example. We need marine reserves in the UK to protect what’s left of our rich biodiversity and we need them now.

Dr. Heather Koldewey is a Co-Founder and Field Conservation Manager at Project Seahorse and Head of Global Conservation Programmes at the Zoological Society of London.