El Nido’s Bacuit Bay coral reefs used to be pristine, massive, and teeming with life.
In the 1970s, live-aboard dive boats would travel all the way from Manila to El Nido. It was the only way scuba divers could explore the area in relative comfort, as traveling to and from El Nido then was, to put it mildly, arduous. There was no airport, and the wooden commercial ships that serviced it listed and rocked, and treated passengers braving the 18-hour journey to a variety of smells that either induced or enhanced seasickness in all but the saltiest of seafarers. But it was also a time when the sea was so rich that one could easily catch a good-size Spanish mackerel just 50 feet off El Nido town, if the older folks here are to be believed.
It isn’t so much like that anymore. There is still plenty to see, but protecting what remains has reached a point of urgency. Certainly, the total 447 reef-building coral species plus 44 unconfirmed species identified in a 2009 study are worth saving.
Coral reefs have been likened to the canary in the coalmine by some marine biologists from the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. Left alone, they should tell us the environmental effects of changes in the ocean acidification, temperature, light, and nutrients. If we are willing to listen, they should tell us if the air in the mine we are in, as it were, is getting toxic.
Critical havens in a Darwinian ecosystem, coral reefs also provide refuge and prey for exotic marine life that follow a reward system as old as the earth itself: survivors will get to spawn the next, slightly better generation of their kind. Yet for all the benefits we have collectively derived from coral reefs, human activity remains one of the most significant contributors to coral reef degradation.
In the mid-1980s, the first resort was built in the island of Minilog (now re-christened Miniloc), and snorkeling as well as other marine sport activities were offered aside from scuba diving. Soon, the inexorable uptrend in tourism began. More island resorts have been built, along with over 300 hotels and inns in El Nido town. The number of tourists increased fivefold since 1994, when data collection began, to 62,960 as of last year.
The Municipality of El Nido has some of the most vigilant protectors of its natural resource. But balancing tourism’s benefits to the local economy against the consequential pressure it bears on the community’s resources is tough. One unintended impact is the degradation of the coral reefs.
To be sure, most tourists are appreciative of El Nido’s coral reefs. It is the less careful few who inadvertently step on or kick corals that do damage. Combine that with the indiscriminate dropping of anchors on dive sites and snorkeling areas and you can imagine how years if not decades worth of coral growth can turn to rubble in one season.
Most establishments, notably the island resorts operated by the Ten Knots Development Corporation, have been continuously engaging their guests in the campaign for responsible tourism. Environment-friendly operations have always been the goal. In fact, as far back as the late 1980s, efforts were made to deploy mooring buoys for the dive boats being used by the resort in Miniloc Island. But the buoys were stolen weeks or months later. With the establishment of its sister resorts in Pangulasian and Langen (now Lagen) Islands in the early 1990s, the company embarked on a renewed and more vigorous effort to set up mooring buoys once more. But one by one, in the course of several months, the buoys were again stolen.
At the forefront of this latest effort to protect El Nido’s corals is the El Nido Foundation, which began a campaign in 2012 to adopt the Green Fins best practices guidelines. Signs pushing admonitions like “Don’t step on the coral” or “Don’t feed the fish” sprouted around shops offering tours. Establishments worked to be accredited with the Green Fins program so tourists will know that they are environmentally responsible.
The El Nido Foundation’s coastal resource management program dovetails with Seacology’s core belief that the community should take responsibility in the management of its resources. With this as backdrop, hands were met for the El Nido Mooring Buoy Project. In setting up the mooring buoys this time around, the townsfolk of El Nido are active participants. Local divers, the coast guard, and even some tourists have been helping to screw in place the helix-type anchors for the mooring buoys. The dive shops are filling scuba tanks for free. Other establishments offer food, fuel, and free use of their boats.
Community members who gave their time and resources to the Mooring Buoy Project were awarded certificates of recognition during modest ceremonies at the municipal hall’s covered basketball court last May 10, 2014. The following day, the ceremonial installation of the first buoy was conducted at Pinagbuyutan Island.