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The Online Magazine for Sustainable Seas
January, 2006, Vol. 8 No. 1

Why use marine protected areas for managing coastal and marine habitats and fisheries?

Excerpted from Creating and Managing Marine Protected Areas in the Philippines by Alan T. White, Porfirio M. Aliño, and Anna Blesilda T. Meneses. The book can be downloaded here

arine protected areas (MPAs) such as reserves, sanctuaries and parks can achieve protection of particular, well-defined areas and critical habitats (Agardy 1997). When properly designed and well managed, an MPA can meet various marine and coastal conservation needs by preserving habitat and important species and protecting specific areas. Coral reef fisheries, in particular, can be effectively managed through implementation of “no-take” areas on reefs (Roberts and Polunin 1993. This approach has been adopted by leading conservation organizations as the number one objective in a global strategy for conserving areas of high biological importance and productivity.

An MPA site or area for a network of MPAs is usually chosen for having high productivity and biodiversity or because it serves a special ecological function like a spawning and/or feeding ground for one or more marine species. An ideal sanctuary is large enough to include sections from all the critical habitats such as coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves or other habitats, as they are interconnected and provide benefits to each other (DENR et al. 2001; White 2001) (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Exchange of mutual benefits among mangrove, seagrass, and coral reef ecosystems (White 2001).

Such a sanctuary or network of MPAs can be particularly effective at promoting long-term productivity of shallow-water fisheries in the Philippines where about 10-15 percent of the marine fish production is supplied by coral reefs. For some small islands, reefs support more than 70 percent of the total fish catch and provide most of the protein consumed by residents (Savina and White 1986). Mangroves and seagrass beds provide the nursery habitat for many species of fish and should be included in management strategies. Basic criteria for selection of MPA sites may include (Agardy 1997; Hermes 1998; Kelleher 1999; Salm and Clark 2000):

  • Relative naturalness: Areas still in good condition.
  • Representativeness: Areas that are unique, include important ecological functions such as spawning, nursery or feeding areas, and/or vulnerable species.
  • Biodiversity: Areas with high diversity of species/ecosystems.
  • Vulnerability: Areas with rich resources/biodiversity that are relatively vulnerable to disturbance or destruction.
  • Fisheries value: Areas that are strategic to enhance fisheries.
  • Tourism value: Areas that could, if protected, enhance appropriate recreational uses and tourism revenues.
  • Social acceptance: Acceptability of all stakeholders.
  • Practicality of management: Relative ease of management.

Reserves help to sustain and increase biotic and genetic diversity by protecting rare, threatened, and endangered species, subpopulations and their habitats. By managing fish harvest, sanctuaries give many species the chance to freely reproduce. As fish inside a sanctuary grow larger and multiply more easily, this leads to a faster turnover of fish from the reserve to the non-reserve through spillover of fish and improved recruitment outside the reserve. This in turn increases yields for fishers (White 1988b; Russ and Alcala 1996a, 1996b; Russ et al. 2004).

Some species like grouper, parrotfish, and snapper do not breed until they are 4-6 years old. In addition, especially groupers, depend on “spawning aggregations” or “SPAGS” for successful reproduction (Colin et al. 2003). Lacking protection, SPAGS can be disrupted or destroyed and juveniles, if taken before they reach breeding age, risk local depletion or extinction. Selective removal of species disrupts the food web and can lead to unforeseen ecological consequences. For example, removal of grazers like sea urchins, parrotfish and others may allow too much algae to grow, smothering the reef and thus decreasing its natural productivity (Hughes 1989).

The first so-called municipal marine park or sanctuary in the Philippines was established in 1974 on Sumilon Island, Cebu, under the guidance of Silliman University and its marine laboratory. Sumilon Island Marine Sanctuary is often cited in the Philippines and even internationally as the best example of why coral reef sanctuaries contribute to improved reef fisheries management (White 1988b, 1989; Russ and Alcala 1996a). This initial experiment in reef management, which in fact stopped all fishing on a portion of the Sumilon Island reef for about 10 years, allowed researchers to collect substantial data on the effects of such management on the coral reef and its related fisheries (Alcala 1988).

  • First, the coral reef substrate condition improved remarkably because all destructive fishing practices were halted. Living coral cover more than doubled to about 50 percent.
  • Second, the fish abundance on the reef, as measured in terms of fish individuals per 500 m2, more than doubled with the most significant increase among those fish targeted by fishers.
  • Finally, and most importantly, the yearly fish catch to fishers fishing on the Sumilon Island reef, but not in the sanctuary, increased from about 14 t/sq km to almost 36 t/sq km (Russ and Alcala 1996a, 1996b) (Figure 2).

This unprecedented fish catch and large measurable increase convinced scientists, reef managers and fishers alike that fish sanctuaries did indeed improve reef fisheries, and most importantly benefit the fishers dependent on the area through export of fish and their larvae (White and Savina 1987; Alcala and Russ 1990) (Figure 2). Unfortunately in 1984, the fish sanctuary on Sumilon was violated and that marked the beginning of a fish yield decline in years thereafter for that particular reef as noted in Figure 2.

Apo Island Marine Reserve is a protected area in Dauin, Negros Oriental, established shortly after Sumilon in 1985 and is a successful example of a community-based MPA with an increasing fish yield to the present time (Figures 2 and 3). The Apo Island fishing community has continued to attest to improvements in their fish catch outside of the sanctuary. This has recently been documented through a study that measured the extent to which adult fish “spillover” to the fished area outside of the sanctuary as shown in Figures 4 and 5. It can be noted that the spillover distances for adult fish are not far but that they are significant in increasing fish catch in the adjacent areas (Russ et al. 2004)

Figure 2. Change in fish yield reported for Sumilon and Apo Islands from 1976 through 1986, reflecting the effects of different management regimes
(White 1989).

Figure 3. Increase in the biomass of large predators inside and adjacent to the Apo Island reserve over 20 years
(Maypa et al. 2002; Russ and Alcala 2003).

Figure 4. Dispersal of fish and larvae from the sanctuary of a marine reserve enhances reproduction and recruitment outside (Bohnsack 1990).

Figure 5. Estimates of biomass of surgeonfish and jackfish at Apo Island, Philippines. Visual census estimates of biomass (a) in the no-take reserve and (b) in the fished nonreserve, 1983-2001. (C) Spatial distribution of biomass of these families of fish outside the reserve at different distances from the reserve boundary in the early (1985-1988) and late (1990-2001) phases of protection of the no-take reserve (Russ et al. 2004).

The examples of MPAs at Sumilon and Apo Islands and now more than 300 other locations in the Philippines are showing that the benefits from protected areas management are multiple and substantial. Controls on fishing, boating and other resource uses promote the recovery of degraded coral reefs and their associated habitats by reducing the incidence of physical damage.

Incompatible uses can be separated by zoning, which then simplifies awareness building for compliance and enforcement measures. Sanctuaries serve educational and research functions by allowing us to compare protected areas to open areas. They also provide cultural and recreational amenities that can generate revenue for management and livelihoods. MPA establishment is becoming a popular means for communities to demonstrate active participation in conservation.

MPAs were initially established to improve fisheries through habitat protection and by allowing natural breeding and reproduction of fish and invertebrates that might otherwise be captured as juveniles. The major benefits from this strategy shown above are now being multiplied by all well managed MPAs.

In addition, MPA objectives are also expanding to include social, economic and tenure concerns. Many are now generating revenues for local governments and communities through user-fees paid by visitors to the area who want to swim or scuba dive inside the MPA.

The substantial improvement in habitat quality and the quantity and diversity of fish is increasingly attracting visitors to many MPAs. The revenue being generated is a bonus to the other conservation and fishery rewards and is stimulating many MPA managers and communities to manage their MPA as a tourism resource as well as a fishery management tool.

Finally, well-managed MPAs bring pride and empowerment to communities that in turn assist their development potential more broadly.



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Alcala, A.C. 1988. Effects of protective management of marine reserves on fish abundances and fish yields in the Philippines. Ambio 17: 194-199.

Alcala, A.C. and G.R. Russ. 1990. A direct test of the effects of protective management on abundance and yield of tropical marine resources. Cons. CIEM 46: 40-47.

Bohnsack, J.A. 1990. The potential of marine fishery reserves for reef fish management in the U.S. Southern Atlantic. NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFSSEFC-261, Miami, USA. 40 p.

Colin, P.L., Y.J. Sadovy and M.L. Domeier. 2003. Manual for the study and conservation of reef fish spawning aggregations. Society for the Conservation of Reef Fish Aggregations Spec. Publ. No. 1 (version 1.0). 98 p.

DENR, DA-BFAR and DILG (Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and Department of the Interior and Local Government). 2001. Philippine coastal management guidebook series (nos. 1-8). Coastal Resource Management Project of the DENR, Cebu City, Philippines.

Hermes, R. 1998. Establishment, maintenance and monitoring of marine protected areas: A guidebook. Philippine Business for Social Progress, Manila, Philippines. 63 p.

Hughes, T.P. 1989. Community structure and diversity of coral reefs: The role of history. Ecology 70: 275-279.

Kelleher, G. 1999. Guidelines for marine protected areas. World Conservation Union (IUCN), Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

Maypa, A.P., G.R. Russ, A.C. Alcala and H.P. Calumpong. 2002. Long-term trends in yield and catch rates of the coral reef fishery at Apo Island, central Philippines. Mar. Freshwat. Res. 53: 207-213.

Roberts, C.M. and N.C. Polunin. 1993. Marine reserves: Simple solutions to managing complex fisheries. Ambio 22(6): 363-368.

Russ, G.R. and A.C. Alcala. 1996a. Do marine reserves export adult fish biomass? Evidence from Apo Island, Central Philippines. Mar. Ecol. Progr. Ser. 132:1-9.

Russ, G.R. and A.C. Alcala. 1996b. Marine reserves: Rates and patterns of recovery and decline of large predatory fish. Ecol. Appl. 6(3): 947-961.

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predatory fish, 1983-2000. Ecol. Appl. 13(6): 1553-1565.

Russ, G.R., A.C. Alcala, A.P. Maypa, H.P. Calumpong and A.T. White. 2004. Marine reserve benefits local fishers. Ecol. Appl. 14(2): 597-606.

Salm, R.V. and J.R. Clark. 2000. Marine and coastal protected areas: A guide for planners and managers. World Conservation Union (IUCN), Gland, Switzerland. 302 p.

Savina, G.C. and A.T. White. 1986. A tale of two islands: Some lessons for marine resource management. Environ. Conserv. 13(2): 107-113.

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Conserv. 14(1): 355-359.

White, A.T. 1988b. The effect of community-managed marine reserves in the Philippines on their associated coral reef fish populations. Asian Fish. Sci. 1(2): 27-42.

White, A.T. 1989. Two community-based marine reserves: Lessons for coastal management, p.

85-96. In T.-E. Chua and D. Pauly (eds.) Coastal area management in Southeast Asia: Policies, management strategies and case studies. ICLARM Conf. Proc. 19, 254 p.

White, A.T. 2001. Philippine coral reefs: A natural history guide. 2nd ed. Bookmark Inc. and Sulu Fund for Marine Conservation Foundation, Inc., Manila, Philippines.



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