on and on and on we go
At the end of the day, five friends swam together in a deep blue pool under tall rows of gently undulating palm trees.
I looked at each of them and marveled how things could change so quickly in a couple of years, and I was glad to be with them at that moment, sharing another or what could be a final exceptional sunset together. It doesn’t matter how many we shared, just how we made each one count.
I smiled as we peered over the edge, watching the sun begin to sink slowly as the Negrense moon started its evening rise.
I’ve come across several divers who’ve been to see some spectacular dive sites around the world and who’ve told me their favorite would have to be this tiny island just off the southern coast of Negros. I’ll just take their word for it; I don’t dive, but what my friends and I saw just snorkeling in the sparkling waters off the boats’ landing site showed us a glimpse of what was there to see: schools of large and colorful fish and bales of sea turtles the size of skimboards gliding gleefully about as we pathetically waddled through the surface in our regulation lifejackets.
This is the tell-tale story of Apo Island.
Before it had reached its present arguably utopian state, the island’s community had thoroughly ransacked its coastal areas clean of life. The coral were being pounded with rocks and the schools of fish living in them were being caught with fine mesh nets, leaving no juvenile fish behind to grow and accidentally trapping even turtles. To round off things the coral and the fish were either alternately pumped full of cyanide or blasted with dynamite. Soon the fisherfolk had to go out farther and farther out to sea until it no longer made sense to spend so much for boat fuel just to pay it off with what they made with the day’s catch.
One day, a sea Angel visited the community and told them how things could go back to how they were before. The community came together and decided to bite the bullet: no more fishing on the island’s coral reefs to allow them to recover, and for the fish to spawn in them and spill over to the designated fishing areas. It was a painful time, but some Apo old-timers will say that this decision saved the island.
In the course of a decade, the people finally saw the fish return, and in droves. 5 kilos can provide sustenance to a family of 5 with enough leftover to sell in the market; by 2005, fisherfolk would report a day’s catch of 20 kilos, all well within the island’s fishing reserves. And with the increasing fish stocks, coral cover and overall species biodiversity within Apo, came yet a bigger fish to fry: dive tourism. Why catch 20 kilos of fish when you can earn the same just by pointing out where they swim to eager divers?
The island pays its sea wardens to keep fishing activities outside its coral reefs through the visitor’s fees it collects from tourists, or what you would call a payment-for-ecosystem-service scheme, the golden ticket for sustainable conservation. As a tourist you pay the fees, first to keep the experience alive for the next generation and second to fire off your own personal 21-gun salute to the heroes who work hard to keep the magic going. Then it will seem like you’ve never paid so less for anything in your life.
What makes the story even more inspiring is that the island has convinced other Filipino fishing communities that establishing their own marine protected areas can bring back their own lost sea treasures. No better proof than Apo Island exists that conservation need not be at the cost of any human being’s expense, or indeed, that the contrary is true.
Apo Island is the Philippines. A third of its inhabitants report income outside of fishing and tourism; that is, money sent by relatives who have made it outside the island, a boon made possible by a generation of sacrifice. The social cost of diaspora is an oft-bandied issue, but the present is always the necessity and the future, if one gets there at all, is the luxury. Why an Island decides to stop fishing in order to save its coral at the cost of hunger, or why a family decides to move a member in order to ensure the welfare of loved ones at the cost of heartbreak, is a deeply personal and harrowingly difficult matter of survival. It is a choice no one needs to make if we collectively treat each other more generously and manage our resources more efficiently.
You and I live away from Apo Island… But is it fair to leave things the way they are, just because we were born on different islands, to different families with different fish to catch everyday? Does Apo have lessons for the rest of us who are living large on the shrinking resources of the bigger island, our planet?
What people don’t usually remember to say when they get back from Siquijor is that it’s a beautiful island. The magic is a come-on, but you’ll find that it sticks with you long after the trip.
We bade farewell and set out for one last island on that whirlwind weekend: Apo Island.