Apo Reef in Focus: The Boon and Bane of the Pandemic
If there is one good thing that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the positive impact the limited movement of people for at least a year has given the environment: A chance to breathe, to recharge, and to heal.
In the Apo Reef Natural Park in Occidental Mindoro, for example, the number of critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) and green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) increased during the period the vast underwater ecosystem of the province was closed to visitors during the community lockdown.
In late March 2021, officials at the park reported a sighting of 80 hawksbill and green sea turtles thriving in the waters of Occidental Mindoro. This nearly tripled the recorded number in 2020.
According to Protected Area Superintendent (PASu) Krystal Dayne Villanada, the improved number of sea turtles can be associated with the decrease in the island’s tourism activities. It comes as the camping sites on Apo Island have become nesting grounds for sea turtles after the park was put under temporary closure to give way to the community quarantine.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the ecotourism activities of Apo Reef Natural Park. This led to its closure from outsiders and low IPAF (Integrated Protected Areas Fund) collection. However, this pandemic also made way for the island to rejuvenate,” Villanada said.
The entire Apo Reef complex comprises of the Apo Island, which is rife with mangrove vegetation, and the northern and southern coral reef complex around Binangaan Islet and Cayos del Bajo.
The National Park is located approximately 33 kilometers off the coast of Sablayan in the Occidental Mindoro province. It is considered one of the topnotch diving destinations in the Philippines and the world.
Villanada also noted the speedy increase in the turtle population. She said 30 turtles have already laid eggs based on the tracks left by hatchlings returning to the sea.
“It was observed that more turtles lay eggs, even in areas previously used for tourism activities, and the presence of crown of thorns (a starfish feeding on coral polyps) significantly decreased,” she said.
Apo Reef, which hosts the world’s second-largest contiguous coral reef and attracts divers around the globe, was reopened to local tourists on April 5, 2021. However, as of writing, only five people have visited the island because only one boat is registered to provide services to tourists.
This is not an ideal set-up for livelihood.
“It’s both a boon and bane. Less pressure [on the environment] but no income to manage [the protected areas],” Villanada said.
According to data, the park lost at least 2.1 million in the past year because of the pandemic. This year, it earned only P9,500, which led to at least three workers getting laid off and some activities on Apo Reef getting cancelled.
The Integrated Protected Area Fund is used mainly to sustain environmental programs and to pay for the salaries of 20 Apo Reef personnel.
To assist displaced park rangers and ecotour guides, the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) pushed for cash-for-work programs.
But as far the positive impact to the environment is concerned, Villanada said they are bent on keeping the momentum.
Protected area managers, for one, are encouraged to maximize distance learning modes and incorporate biodiversity conservation in local schools.
“We are already practicing using reusable bags, straws and others to lessen the plastic on the island because we know that it is one of the threats to sea turtles. We are still in Law enforcement and rehabitat monitoring during this pandemic,” Villanada said.
This coming September, Apo Reef will celebrate 25 years of conservation since it was declared as a Protected Area under the category of Natural Park on September 6, 1996, by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 0868, s. 1996.
This article was written by Ian Mark T. Angan-Angan from Occidental Mindoro as a final requirement of AYEJ.org and the US Embassy’s “Green Beat Islas: An Online Environmental Journalism Training.”
Featured photo from Apo Reef Natural Park Facebook page