Livelihood from the Living Sea

PictureIn 1974, a marine reserve was established in one of the tiny islands of our country. One side of the island was declared as the core sanctuary or a “no take zone” and the remaining areas became the buffer zone where sustenance fishing was allowed. In ten years there were significant improvement of the non-fished area.  Live coral cover had spread dramatically, fish abundance had more than doubled and more importantly,  fish catch in the fishing zone increased from 14 tons / km2 to 36 tons / km2 (Russ and Alcala 1996).  This clearly shows that by protecting a portion of the island’s reef from fishing or any form of harvesting, the fish population within that zone will increase and eventually spillover to the adjoining reefs outside the sanctuary.

With the guidance and support of Siliman University in Dumaguete City, Sumilon Island became a model for fisheries management that stresses the importance of fish sanctuaries as a means to increase fish stocks. In 1984, the Sumilon marine sanctuary was violated and in the subsequent years the fish yield declined.

Since then the marine reserves, sanctuaries and parks have increased to more than 1,000 marine protected areas or MPAs throughout the Philippine archipelago. Majority of these MPAs had been established through a municipal or city ordinance. A marine reserve is an area where non-destructive fishing or non-commercial harvesting is allowed but regulated.  Marine parks are areas wherein educational, recreational or conservation oriented tourism activities are allowed. The marine sanctuaries are strict protection zones where no extraction may take place and where access may also be prohibited, in its extreme form it is a “no take, no touch” area.  A sanctuary is usually located within the boundaries of a marine reserve or a park.

Out of the hundreds of MPAs in the country only a handful are effectively managed and usually these are the sites where the LGU and the local communities have consistently worked together to monitor, manage and protect their coastal resources.  Many of these successful MPAs have also become attractions for tourists, specially for snorkelers and scuba divers who visit these places because of its well preserved condition, live coral cover, high biodiversity and abundance of fish. Thus aside from the ecological importance to fisheries and food security, successful MPAs have also become valuable tourism resources.

Conservation and Livelihood

A common concern in all protected areas of our country whether it is in the forested mountains or in the coastal areas is the lack of livelihood opportunities for the local communities that depend on the natural resources that is being protected. Thus provision of alternative sources of income is always mentioned as part of the management strategy in nature parks and other protected sites.

Alternative livelihood that is not dependent on resource extraction has always been viewed as a means to reduce pressure on the natural resources in these critical areas.  The most viable option is Community based nature tourism or what many refer to as eco-tourism. However this strategy has rarely been successfully implemented mainly due to the lack of capability within the communities and the concerned LGUs.

Buhay Dagat program

In 2008, the Philippine Commission on Sports Scuba Diving (PCSSD) of the Dept. of Tourism launched the Buhay Dagat Program that intended to open economic opportunities for coastal communities. The program simply means “hanap buhay mula sa buhay na dagat” (livelihood from a living sea) and it introduced community-based tourism in an MPA.

PictureThe primary objective of Buhay Dagat was to introduce an additional source of income for People’s Organization or fisherfolk communities that protect and manage their Marine Protected Areas. Most of the people engaged in the gallant effort of protection of municipal MPAs do so in a volunteer basis and more often than not it entails a lot of sacrifices to the point that livelihood is compromised. A substantial amount of time is devoted to the monitoring and protection of the site by the local community as stewards of their coastal resources.

Buhay Dagat trained interested residents to become snorkeling guides so that they can offer skin diving activities to of the marine sanctuary thereby empowering them to derive supplemental income from coastal tourism. Initially, ten (10) MPAs were selected throughout the Philippine archipelago as pilot sites for this program that aims to help alleviate poverty in the communities and at the same time, encourage them to further strengthen and continue protection of their respective marine sanctuaries.

Site selection

Potential sites for the program were identified using a criteria the following: an established MPA with effective management being implemented; willingness of the community that protects and monitors the MPA to engage in coastal tourism; receptiveness and support of the local government unit (LGU); area is safe and secured from political unrest/insurgency and criminality; great potentials for coastal tourism; current bio-physical status (well preserved ecosystem, high biodiversity); readiness for tourism; suitable for snorkeling at least six months in a year; no threats from logging, mining, pollution and uncontrolled development; and no hazards (rip currents, boat traffic, surf, abundance of sea wasp, etc).

The MPA management rating developed by the MPA Support Network (MSN) is also referred to, as a basis of initial selection. A site validation is then conducted prior to the final selection and implementation.

Capability Building

PictureA six-day, on-site training was offered by the PCSSD from 2008 – 2011 to deserving fisher-folks, communities or people’s organizations. Successful participants were accredited as Reef Ranger snorkeling guides. This was in recognition of their qualification as trained snorkeling guides and dedicated protectors of the MPA.  Aside from practical skills like skin diving, aquatic guideship, water safety and rescue techniques, the training covered topics on the environmental principles, conservation of marine resources and community-based sustainable tourism. The program was developed by Blue Water Consultancy and it’s team of experts conducted the Reef Ranger snorkeling guide training.

Buhay Dagat’s first site in November 2008 was the Cabacungan Fish Sanctuary in Cabilao Island located in Loon, Bohol. The island is a known dive site and several boats travel daily all the way from Mactan, Cebu to bring divers. Hundred Islands National Park in Alaminos, Pangasinan was the second site where the Reef Ranger training was conducted in December 2008.

While the Buhay Dagat program was started during the term of Sec. Ace Durano, the program was continued when Sec. Alberto Lim was at the helm of the department. From March 2011 to 2012 the program was successfully implemented in 8 other sites: Sipalay City and Sagay City, Negros Occ., Palaui Is. Protected Landscape and Seascape, Sta. Ana, Cagayan, Lubang and Looc, Mindoro Occ., Limasawa Is., Southern Leyte, Aloguinsan, Cebu, and Daram, Samar. It was also conducted in Lian, Batangas on the request of the municpality and the Center for Social Concern and Action (COSCA), La Salle in Oct. 2012

In the last quarter of 2012, the program was discontinued by the current executive director of PCSSD. However the initiative was replicated by the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (now renamed Biodiversity Management Bureau) for the ecotourism enterprise development of the Integrated Coastal Resource Management Project of DENR. In 2012 -2013 it was successfully implemented in 8 other sites in the provinces of Cagayan, Zambales, Masbate, Cebu and Davao Oriental. From 2014 – 2015, Buhay Dagat was also conducted in Southern Leyte, Northern Samar and Samar in with DOT Region VIII.


The simple philosophy of the Buhay Dagat program is that if the people care for and protect the sea and their MPAs then it will continue to provide them food and livelihood. With the Buhay Dagat initiative, protection of marine resources and biodiversity conservation are strengthened through coastal tourism while providing economic benefits for local communities.

The first edition of this article was published in Haring Ibon Jan-March 2009 Issue no. 37

Photos are by Louie Mencias