Established in 2002, the Buntod Reef Marine Sanctuary, a local marine-protected area (MPA) in Masbate City, province of Masbate, is now considered a certified “tourist magnet” and one of the top ecotourism destinations in the Bicol region.
Once in the brink of extinction because of rampant illegal and destructive fishing, reef fishes and other marine wildlife now thrive in this 250-hectare marine sanctuary.
Buntod Reef Marine Sanctuary’s success story proves true the saying “you reap what you sow” for members of the Samahan ng Mangingisda ng Puro-Sinalikway (Samapusi).
Today Samapusi members are handsomely rewarded by increased fish catch, plus extra income from the booming ecotourism industry.
Tour guides, reef rangers
Members of the group, who used to torment the city’s coastal and marine environment have become protectors of the ocean and its precious resources, particularly those found within Buntod.
They earn as much as P1,000 a day for their services—including rental of motorized bancas, serving as tour guides or reef rangers accompanying tourists who go swimming, boating, scuba diving or snorkeling—to ensure the safety and security of local and foreign tourists, if they are not out fishing in open seas.
Members of the group also augment the city’s bantay dagat (sea guards) volunteers, patrolling municipal fishing grounds and doing coastal cleanup from time to time.
Buntod Reef Marine Sanctuary showcases its mangrove forest—a small patch of green on a tiny island with a beach-like, natural sand-bar formation, like no other.
Amazingly, the water on one side of the sand bar is warm and the water on the other side being relatively cooler. Fishing within the MPA, one of two local MPAs the group helps nurture and protect, is strictly prohibited.
MPAs are usually marine key biodiversity areas, which need to be protected and conserved. Most are host to a diverse marine life, including habitat-forming species like mangroves, sea grasses and coral reefs, which are important in ensuring the sustainability of marine life.
The policy is to ensure that fish are allowed to breed and for small fish to grow and replenish the province’s municipal fishing ground. Even from afar, a wide variety of fish can be seen beneath the crystal-clear waters.
The Philippines has a total of 240 protected areas (PAs) covered by the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act. Of the 240 PAs, 70 are MPAs—32 of which are strictly or predominantly marine areas.
Besides national MPAs, there are also 1,751 local MPAs nationwide as of 2015. An MPA generally refers to protected areas that includes some area of marine landscape and biodiversity.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature defines an MPA as any area of the intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment.
Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim of the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) underscored the important role of local government units (LGUs) in local stewardships of MPAs.
“The role of local government is highlighted by local stewardship of MPAs. It provides recognition that they are able to set aside a portion of their municipal waters as a sanctuary or protected area. It enhances their capacity to become stewards of their own marine or coastal resources,” she said.
According to Lim, the establishment of local MPAs compliment the national government effort to protect the country’s rich marine biodiversity.
The DENR-BMB is promoting the establishment of more MPAs, but more important, to strengthen existing ones.
Lim underscored the need for LGUs to recognize the interconnectivity of MPAs, adding that protection should be holistic and cover networks of MPAs.
The Buntod Reef Marine Sanctuary is a haven for a wide variety of fish—particularly colorful and all-important reef fish species. The area is also home to a number of ornamental fish species.
A 2012 visual census, which serves as its baseline data of fish found in the area, revealed that 124 fish species could be found within the marine sanctuary.
Around 27 percent of fish species found in the area are damselfish, 12 percent are rabbitfish and 6 percent are parrotfish.
The area is also sprawling with a variety of seashells, crabs, giant clams and sea cucumbers.
More than 15 years ago, this was not the case, said Tito V. Velza, the focal person for the city’s Integrated Costal Resource Management Project.
Speaking in Filipino, he said traces of dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing and other illegal and destructive fishing methods could still be observed in some areas within the MPA.
However, he said there are also good signs that the marine ecosystem in the area is now recovering. Dynamite fishing has nearly destroyed the area and the reef fishes and other marine life were nearly driven to extinction, he said.
In 2002 the local government of Masbate decided to the declare area an MPA to prevent it from further degradation.
“It will take half a century, at least, for the damaged ecosystem to fully recover. But there are already signs of recovery,” he said. “What we need is for all these destructive activities to stop.”
He said at first, there was strong resistance among fishermen because they felt they were deprived of their fishing ground.
“But two or three years after establishing the ‘no-take’ zone, they came to realize the benefits of having declared the area as a local MPA,” he said.
“With their income from ecotourism, they no longer do illegal fishing or catch threatened fish and other marine species,” Velza said.
Ecotourism started to flourish with local and foreign tourists learning of Buntod’s beauty.
An average of 1,500 tourists visit Buntod each month. The number of tourists increases during the peak season of the summer months from March to April.
During this period, all the 30 members of Samapusi are busy ferrying tourists to various locations, with the Buntod Reef Marine Sanctuary as the ultimate destination.
The local government of Masbate City, in partnership with various national government agencies and private-sector partners, helped provide proper training for the members of Samapusi.
“When we started this project, the fish catch of our fishermen have increased [after] fishing within the [MPA] completely stopped,” Esperanza Carullo, Masbate City’s tourism officer told the BusinessMirror.
Carullo said the weekly seminars to educate fishing communities in Masbate City finally paid off when reef fishes and other marine wildlife returned in the area.
The seminars, she said, helped the fishermen understand the importance of maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem declaring the Buntod Reef Marine Sanctuary strictly “no-take” zone.
“Before, they [fishermen] are the ones doing illegal fishing. Now, they are protecting the area because they came to realize its benefits,” she said.
She said as the members of the Samapusi learned the value of maintaining a healthy ecosystem, so do the people in the coastal communities.
“There is no more illegal fishing here,” Samapusi President Romeo C. Soria said.
The restricted area of the marine sanctuary, the 51-hectare core zone, is strictly a no-take zone. However, he said even in the 182-hectare buffer zone, fishing is strictly prohibited.
“It’s a big help to us fishermen. The project, particularly snorkeling and scuba-diving activities, attract foreign visitors,” he said
Various activities of the group, he said, help protect the entire marine protected
“The fish within the marine sanctuary is for viewing only,” he said. Besides the fish, the group also protect giant clams and sea cucumber, which their group help nurture.
“We also do stock enhancement. Whenever we apprehend fishermen who harvest giant clams, we put them back within the [MPA]. There are also friendly sharks in these area. They are harmless. We have plenty of them, but they are young and small,” he said.
“Since we protected the marine sanctuary 24/7, fishes are able to breed. We now have lots of fish,” he said.
Tourists mesmerized by the beauty of the place could not agree more. After all, its not called fish sanctuary for nothing.