I just got back from the Philippines where I volunteered for a month with Coral Cay Conservation (CCC), a UK-based organisation that uses citizen science to gather scientific data, and works with the local community to protect ecosystems. CCC has projects in Cambodia and the Philippines at the moment.
It was an interesting experience, to say the least. On more personal and non-biological matters, I will comment on my personal blog later. But for now, shall stick with the diving and the science and community work parts.
The business model, if I may call it that, that CCC uses is quite interesting. They’re mainly funded by volunteers, who pay to volunteer, and grants. The HQ is in London, who are paid, but the staff at the expedition base are mostly volunteers as well! They don’t get paid (though they don’t have to pay), and they’re usually there for 4 months or 6 months… So volunteers sign up for a (minimum) 1 month expedition, go and get trained to do surveys, and then carry out the surveys. We dive twice a day, 6 days a week!
The Science Development Programme took about 2 weeks for my batch of volunteers. We had lectures on coral lifeforms and target species, soft corals and invertebrates, fish families and species and algae/seagrasses. Following each lecture, we’d have dive ‘pointies’, when the staff ‘points’ and we write down what it is. Then there’ll be a computer test, looking at photos and ID-ing, and if we pass (90% to pass), we do the pointy test… Pretty rigorous I think, I quite enjoyed learning the corals and fish, seeing as my knowledge of those were minimal. I suppose it was harder for volunteers without a science background to learn the names, though I guess everyone manages eventually.
I managed to do the 2 kinds of surveys that CCC carries out, the baseline survey as well as the Marine Protected Area (MPA) survey. The baseline surveys I did were along the Pacific Ocean side of Southern Leyte, and is the essential groundwork so that CCC has a knowledge of what the habitat is like. With the data, they can better advise the government on the more valuable areas to conserve.
The field base is located right in front of Napantao MPA, hence most of my dives were logged there. It’s a really beautiful reef, lots of fish and huge corals. The MPA surveys are done once or twice a year, to check on the health and status of the reef, and I did the ones at Napantao MPA.
The villages (known as barangays) in Southern Leyte depend mainly on coconut farming, fishing and rice plantations for their livelihood. (The entire area seem to be covered in coconut trees, barely any patches of tropical forests!:( ) Most of their fishing is subsistence fishing, but one of the main threats to the reefs in the area is still fishing. Hence the MPAs, in which fishing is not allowed, are pretty effective in protecting the reefs. There’s the spillover effect, and the fishermen can still fish outside the MPA. An MPA usually “belongs” to a barangay, and for it to be really effective, everyone in the barangay has to agree to not fish within the MPA.
This is where community education comes into play, and CCC staff venture into communities to conduct presentations and activities to increase the awareness of coral reefs and their benefits. The barangay will usually also have a Bantai Dagat, which means ‘protector of the sea’, on duty 24/7 to patrol the MPA, ensuring that there is no illegal fishing. There is also a small charge levied on divers who dive within the MPA, so there is still some form of income.
In general, CCC maintains very good relations with the local government and communities, and is usually invited to sit in on meetings and give advice. This is definitely a plus point when doing conservation; after all, without local support, nothing is going to get very far.
While I was there, the Project Scientist was invited to a municipal meeting on standardising regulations in the Sogod Bay area. Each barangay has their own fishing area and fishing regulations may differ from area to area within the Bay, hence fishermen can claim ignorance of regulations when they’re out of their areas. Thus the municipal government wanted to standardise the regulations so there can be no excuses in the future! I thought it really encouraging that the government officials themselves are so interested in wanting to protect their resources and not just settle for short term benefits.
Overall, it was a really interesting experience, to see how marine conservation is done on the ground. Lots learnt, definitely, not just about grassroots education and working with the local community (that we already know in theory), but also the hard science parts like coral and fish names! If you’ve got quite a bit of cash to spare and some time on your hands, you can check out more on volunteering with Coral Cay here.