MARINE RESERVE. Fish are thriving in this undated photograph of a Marine Protected Area in Zamboanguita, Negros Oriental. The town now has 10 no-take marine reserves to allow fisheries to recoup, even as signs of spillover have been reported in recent months. (Photo courtesy of Wilbert Partosa/Zamboangita Coastal Resource Management Office)

DUMAGUETE CITY – Marine protected areas (MPAs) in the municipality of Zamboanguita in Negros Oriental are thriving, with some of them already showing signs of "spillover" a few years after they were identified as fish sanctuaries.

Wilbert Partosa, officer-in-charge of the town’s Coastal Resource Management Office, said in a phone interview Friday there are 10 MPAs spread out in different villages, some of them sharing boundaries.

“I went diving recently with some other divers in the marine reserves as part of our regular monitoring and some fish species have spawned and we can see indications of spillover already,” he said in mixed English and Cebuano.

Three of the MPAs were initially established in 1999 while the rest were proposed in 2017 during the administration of incumbent Mayor Glenson Alanano. One of the MPAs is under the diving ordinance because of its rich seagrass beds unlike the others that have coral formations but it is still protected, he said.

“After having gone through the processes with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), consultations with the communities, fisherfolk, and other stakeholders, the town council finally approved the ordinance declaring the establishment of the additional MPAs last year,” Partosa said.

Also known as marine reserves, these MPAs are designed to regulate activities to protect and preserve underwater resources as well as to allow fisheries to recoup, he said.

Unregulated fishing in the past decades led to a decline in fisheries not only in Zamboanguita but in other parts of the province, local marine scientists had previously reported.

Partosa said fishing inside the MPAs is not allowed, while snorkeling and scuba diving within the reserve requires a permit/ticket from the local government unit, costing PHP50 and PHP200 per person, respectively.

In the early days of the establishment of the MPAs, some marginal fisherfolk showed resistance as they did not understand clearly and were not present during consultations on the future benefits of these marine sanctuaries, he noted.

Organized fishermen’s associations, meanwhile, are supporting the MPAs after they realized that in a few years, their fish catch will improve from the spillovers, Partosa said. Further, there are still plenty of fishing grounds in other parts of the town.

As more beach resorts and dive shops are sprouting in Zamboanguita, the LGU is also looking at striking a balance between pump-priming its local economy while promoting eco-tourism as a stable source of income, Partosa said.

Twenty Bantay Dagat or sea patrol volunteer organizations help to ensure that the MPAs are safe from illegal encroachment while also implementing local ordinances on protecting the environment.

The Philippine National Police (PNP)-Maritime Group and the Coast Guard are also assisting in law enforcement.

On the other hand, the Zamboanguita Diving and Leisure Resorts Association (ZDLRA), which recently inducted its new officials, has committed to helping safeguard the MPAs, some of which are situated near or fronting their property, Partosa said.

Some of the attractions of the town include underwater macro-photography, with minute marine creatures usually found in seagrass beds, and the famed Wednesday flea market at Sitio Maluay in Barangay Malatapay, which is co-located with the wharf that is the closest jump-off point for tourists taking motorized boats to the world-renowned dive destination, Apo Island.

Now that fish in these no-take marine reserves are already starting to flourish, Partosa said with the cooperation of all stakeholders, Zamboanguita will have sustainable fisheries in the future while becoming one of Negros Oriental’s favorite tourist destinations that will spur economic growth. (PNA)