The endangered Napoleon wrasse (mameng). (Photo from Dive into the World; Retrieved from creatures-napoleon-wrasse.php through Philippine Information Agency)

The Napoleon wrasse (mameng) which has never been seen in the waters of Palawan for half a decade has been spotted again in Coron in the Bulalacao Marine Protected Area (MPA).

An article published on February 23 on the website of the Philippine Information Agency (PIA), the public information arm of the Philippine government, said the gentle giant Napoleon wrasse was spotted again in Bulalacao along with the marine mammal dugong or sea cow, more sea turtles and schools of fishes.

“The year 2018 has been a successful milestone in the community folks’ efforts to restore their marine biodiversity, which was destroyed by enormous cyanide and dynamite fishing activities over the past decades,” quoted the article.

Pacifico Beldia II, marine biodiversity conservation manager of the Malampaya Foundation, Inc. (MFI), said in the article that spotting the Napoleon wrasse and “the remarkable recovery of fish stocks” in the area, indicates that illegal fishing practices have been stopped in both the “No Take and Sustainable Use Zones.”

The coral-rich Bulalacao Marine Protected Area. (Photo by Mr. Pacifico Beldia II through the Philippine Information Agency)

The MFI has a conservation agreement signed in 2012 with Coron’s indigenous peoples, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).

“We started to notice the remarkable recovery of fish stocks, especially the grazer species like parrotfishes, siganids, and acanthurids. These species groups tend the reefs to prevent algal overgrowth that smothers the live corals. We also started noticing the recovery of small pelagic fishes fusiliers and scads indicating the eradication of illegal fishing practices in both the No Take and Sustainable Use Zones. [In the] succeeding years, we saw the endangered Napoleon wrasse in all of our permanent transect sites, and, this year, we saw the black tip shark in one of the No Take Zones and a dugong in the seagrass bed just near the community wharf. Sea turtle sightings became more and more common as well,” Beldia said.

The post said a comprehensive biophysical assessment carried out in 2012 determined that 90 percent of the surveyed reefs in Bulalacao were “overfished and showed signs of damage from blast fishing and other unsustainable fishing practices like the use of a compressor or Huka fishing”.

The Napoleon wrasse is distinguished by interesting patterns on its scales and has a hump over its head like a hat. This interesting feature of the fish grows and protrudes more as it ages.

According to the Dive The World in a report, the Napoleon wrasse is valued around USD 100 per kilogram in restaurants in Hong Kong, and the more its population dwindles, the more its price increases.

“As the number of Napoleon wrasse decreases at a fast and alarming rate, its price inevitably increases. The fish is on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) ‘Red List of Threatened Species’, and is listed for protection on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species,” stated the article.

“Fortunately, the endangered Napoleon wrasse, including the ‘Dugong’ (which is classified by the IUCN as ‘vulnerable), has been spotted in Palawan after half a decade of absence,” it further said.

Conservation efforts to ensure the recovery of this fish species, the dugong, and others, were led by the MFI not only with the DOE, the NCIP, and Tribal Leaders and Indigenous Peoples’ Organization (TLIPO) in Coron but also with the Malampaya natural gas project’s joint venture partners Shell Philippines Exploration B.V. (SPEX), Chevron Malampaya LLC and Philippine National Oil Company-Exploration Corp. (PNOC-EC).

The Bulalacao MPA was launched in 2014 as a priority biodiversity conservation of the MFI that emphasizes the “importance of grassroots representation, a participative approach in decision-making, social preparation and advocacy, research, habitat restoration and conservation, and the provision of conservation incentives in the form of livelihood projects and skills training scholarships.”

It emphasized the significance of the vertical and horizontal linkages in marine conservation initiatives by engaging in joint activities such as rehabilitation of coral reefs and mangroves; species restocking; the construction of MPA guardhouses; training of community volunteers in enforcement as Bantay Dagat; training in supplementary livelihoods such as enviro-farming; and provision of the necessary supplies and equipment for such works.

The MFI also established collaborations with the academe such as with the Western Philippines University (WPU) in Puerto Princesa City.

Sabino Flores, a fisherman who was formerly engaged in dynamite fishing, said his four fishing boats would rake in around P150,000 every 15 days for catching coral trout (suno), as well as lobsters, through illegal fishing methods.

“Limang taon ko rin ginagawa ‘yan. Araw-araw ‘yan, at kapag iniwanan na namin ‘yong isla, bugbog talaga siya,” he recalled.

The post said the use of the dynamite and cyanide to catch fish over a long period of time had “left the marine waters with tremendous damage, indicating a serious threat to the livelihood of the community people.”

Unlike in the past when 10 kilos of fish can be caught in one hour, today, barely two kilograms can be taken home by fishermen from a day’s work at sea, according to the article.

Seeing the tremendous damage, Flores said he was bothered by his conscience, prompting him to help form the Bulalacao Fishermen Multipurpose Cooperative (BFMC).

He convinced his fellow fishermen to give up the bad habit of employing illegal methods of fishing that destroy the marine ecosystem.

“Nabawasan nga ang kita, pero nawala sa konsensya mo yung nagpapakasarap ka, pero ‘yong mga susunod sa iyo, wala nang matitikman,” he said.

Dr. Theresa Mundita S. Lim, international biodiversity expert and executive director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), lauded the participatory approach of the MFI in recovering the marine life in Bulalacao while strengthening the indigenous people and fisherfolks in the local community.

“We have to learn from this very valuable experience and encourage more collective efforts on local, national, regional, and global levels to conserve our marine biodiversity; promote responsible and sustainable use of resources and livelihood; save marine habitats; stop single-use plastics that harm our healthy waters; and continuously combat illegal and destructive activities,” the article quoted Lim.