Diving into Sustainable Marine Protected Area Management in the Philippines

Klaus Stiefel
A healthy reef enjoyed by divers in Camiguin, Philippines.

Dubbed a ‘global center of marine biodiversity,’1 the waters around the Philippines have some of the highest concentrations of marine species in the world.2–4 However, the country’s reefs are under increasing anthropogenic pressures, particularly from coastal development, population growth, and unsustainable fishing practices.5–9 Although the widespread establishment of community-managed marine protected areas (MPAs) have slowed the rates of decline of these ecosystems in many areas, only a small percentage of coral reefs are protected.10,11 The effectiveness of MPA management is also frequently undermined by a lack of funding and government support.12–15 As an increasingly popular destination for foreign scuba divers,16,17 tourist demand for pristine reefs and high biological diversity in marine species can be positively harnessed to support more sustainable and effective MPA management and to enhance equitable distribution of benefits from tourism. By issuing permits for international tourists to dive in the Philippines while providing them with the opportunity to channel their money directly into conservation and educating them on the need for support for conservation projects, there are also opportunities to draw attention to the MPA system and community projects supporting it. In turn, this promotes reef ecosystem preservation and draws tourists’ attention to the need for more equitable development in coastal communities.

Undervaluing and Underinvesting in Natural Capital  

The Philippine’s coral reef ecosystems are drastically undervalued.18,19 These natural and critical capital assets generate welfare-enhancing services from direct provisioning benefits such as food to more diffuse benefits such as improved water quality and wave attenuation.20 Biodiversity is a key indicator of reef health and is central to the provision of ecosystem service benefits. It supports fisheries and increases overall fish biomass, as species richness and diversity are strong predictors of both size and abundance. This also provides a buffer from climate variability for fish species by helping stabilize fish production.21 Biodiversity similarly underpins ecosystem services such as improving water quality through nutrient cycling, wave attenuation and storm buffering, and erosion control.22

Changes in the reefs will alter the costs and benefits of these ecosystem services. For example, changes to the reef can have a noticeable impact on nearby commercial fisheries. However, many of the benefits are not readily quantifiable or not fully captured in markets. The values of these benefits are then not fully considered in economic decisions about how to use the reef. As an environmental economist might argue, environmental degradation comes about from the failure to put an adequate value on environmental assets such as coral reefs. This undervaluation results in a tendency for them to be overused, exploited, and used in a destructive manner. Additionally, for resources such as reefs that are not owned by any individual, the costs of overexploitation of the resource does not accrue to any one actor, but instead is borne by society at large. As such, there is less impetus to use the resource in a sustainable manner.

Low-income coastal communities that rely on all of the ecosystem services that healthy, functioning reefs provide bear the majority of the costs from reef decline. The costs of losing such future benefits as a result of overfishing seldom factor into individuals’ decision-making about how the resource is used. Without the cooperation of other users, the economic incentive is to maximize catch.

Marine Protected Areas: A Limited Solution

Katherine Hooper/Google Maps
A mockup of the proposed interactive map tool displaying an example of a community-driven MPA project in Southern Negros, Philippines.

MPAs can be effective in stabilizing biodiversity, reducing anthropogenic impacts, and improving the rates at which reefs and resident fish populations recover from damage.23 Through resource accumulation, they enable conservation and allow the rebuilding of natural structures and biomass to occur by suspending or limiting external (anthropogenic) interference, including overharvesting.24 Properly managed, MPAs can also allow fish to grow in abundance and size, with positive spill-over effects of these populations into adjacent fishing grounds, supporting the well-being of local communities.25

While MPAs, where they do exist, are operated at the state level, devolving their management to the local level has the potential to increase the effectiveness of conservation.26–28 Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom showed that, under certain circumstances, communities can cooperate to create rules for themselves and act to successfully and sustainably manage common pool resources.29 Principles central this successful management include communities having opportunities for self-determination and the ability to directly reap the rewards of conservation, for example, by excluding outsiders from their fishing grounds. It should be noted that the impetus for devolution in developing countries tends to stem from limited state capacity to manage coastal resources; local knowledge and familiarity with local contexts often makes community management more efficient and effective.26,27 However, by shifting responsibilities to the local level, costs of management are also inevitably shifted and must be considered with care. MPA management requires ongoing surveillance, monitoring, enforcement, and participation in decision-making and rule creation,12 all of which require time and technical and financial capacity seldom possessed by these communities.30

Dive Tourism: Supporting Community Conservation and Development?

For developing countries like the Philippines, tourism is promoted as a driver of economic growth and development, but there is a growing recognition of the negative social and economic impacts associated with unchecked growth. Rather than benefitting local economies, tourism can actually bring high levels of economic leakage, with profits accruing to foreign owners and many goods and services imported from overseas.31 Economic links between tourism operations and surrounding communities can be weak. This not only exacerbates the inequalities between wealthy countries and the developing host-country, but between local groups. Dive tourism in particular is a lucrative industry for lesser-developed countries whose reefs are attractive for international tourists.32 However, these reefs are threatened by poor diving practices such as interference with marine life, pollution, and removal of corals.33

Charging tourist fees for the recreational use of protected areas is a popular mechanism,34 and in particular, diver use fees are often used to help offset costs of management or support other community development projects.35,36 However, they are often inefficient, inequitable, and ineffective for management. Conflicts within communities often arise over the fairness of fee distribution,37 and tourists can be resentful of fee collection by local community members, being skeptical about how the revenue is spent.12,38 Fee collection is also a time-consuming activity for community members, and the net benefits are often insufficient to cover management costs. For many communities, the rate of visitation from tourism is so low that charging a fee is not feasible or practical.34

Dive Permits

An alternative solution is that the Philippine government establish diving permits, to be obtained via an interactive website. All international divers will be required to obtain a permit before completing any dives, valid for one visit to the Philippines. Funding would then be distributed to community-managed MPAs via two streams: half of the fees are pooled and distributed equitably to management committees of the MPAs; the other half towards a community-driven project of the diver’s choosing. The latter stream follows a funding model similar to crowdfunding websites but with a captive audience.

Klaus Stiefel
An Anemone Shrimp (Periclimenes Holthuisi) in Dauin, Philippines.

The main page of the website would be an interactive map tool, similar to that of the Protected Matters Search Tool from the Australian Government’s Department of the Environment and Energy, but with greater interactivity and a more engaging presentation.39 This tool would enable users to hover a mouse over a region on the map to display current community-driven MPA projects. A brief description of the project, local MPAs and communities, as well as pictures, personal stories, and local attractions and features of the area would be displayed. Drilling down further, users could access more detailed information like management plan and budget summaries. Selecting a project would take the user to a page for payment, also with an option to donate above the required fee (familiarity with and positive attitudes toward a particular conservation initiative can positively influence donor behavior).40 There have been a number of conservation initiatives successfully financed by crowdfunding; however, more often than not, a lack of transparency and a limited audience ordinarily limits the utility of such a funding model.41 With a captive audience, and disclosure of the projects and expenditure, this would not be the case here.

Projects highlighted on the crowdfunding platform would be driven from the ground up. Communities establish their own projects based on local needs, developing a brief management plan and proposed budget to be submitted for review. These projects must be related to MPA management and could include educational programs on marine conservation for local schools, alternative livelihood initiatives for fishers, or raising funds for equipment needed for MPA management. Encouraging communities to come together and share ideas would build community pride and a sense of ownership in local MPAs as well as building social capital and support for longer-term MPA compliance.42 It would also improve alternative livelihood options and reduces dependence and pressure on coastal marine fisheries to provide livelihoods.12


The initiative would be overseen by a partnership arrangement between an external development funding body such as USAID (which has existing community MPA support projects in the Philippines) and the Philippine Government. The administration and day-to-day management would be conducted through a reputable conservation organization like the Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation (CCEF). CCEF, which works to improve coastal resources by supporting communities in managing local MPAs, would take on administrative, maintenance, and project review functions, supporting communities to further develop their projects. Funding for community projects would go directly from the administering non-profit organization to local communities via a simple mobile-based payment platform. For the equally distributed monies for MPA management, the organization would distribute funds through existing channels to local governments and communities.

Funding Pool

The number of overseas tourists visiting the Philippines increased by 54 percent between 2008 and 2014, to 4.8 million.43 Of these, scuba divers are estimated at 15 percent. Charging a one-off fee of US$20 for a certificate (less than the cost of a single fun-dive in the Philippines), could deliver funding of around US$14.5 million per annum. Why US$20? Although reports of the number of MPAs in the Philippines range from 400 to over 1,500, if it is assumed there are 1,000 eligible MPAs, this would provide far more than the US$10,000 estimated average annual costs of management of some typical MPAs.44 A similar sized fee of US$20 charged to foreign tourists by the Palau government with their departure tax allowed the government to raise about US$2.26 million in two and a half years for environmental protection projects. Revenue from dive permits would be deposited into a national fund, administered by a panel comprised of a variety of experts who would be given a clear mandate to support local community development and conservation, distributing funds in accordance with a framework building on existing rating systems for assessing management effectiveness of MPAs in the Philippines.45

Willing to Pay?

Klaus Stiefel
A diver photographs a sea snake in Dauin, Philippines.

Currently, divers tend to be charged far less for the use of MPAs than they are willing to pay. A number of studies in MPAs in the Philippines and around the world have shown that not only are divers willing to pay a great deal more than the entrance fees charged,46,47 but also that increasing fees has little effect on tourist numbers.36 A notable study by Walpole and colleagues showed that for a national marine park in Indonesia, visitors were willing to pay ten times the entrance fee.47 Divers are thus unlikely to be deterred from visiting and diving in the Philippines because of diving permit fees.

Willingness to pay is enhanced by transparency. The current perceived lack of transparency in fee collection and distribution processes at local levels has built a level of mistrust and tension.12,37,38 A disclosure of expenditures online, and accompanying details about how and why specific projects are being funded would enhance trust and consequently willingness to pay.

Building Natural Capital, Building Social Capital

Investments in MPAs can have high returns. A study of investments into the protection of the Tubbataha Reef found a cost-benefit ratio of 1:8, and another in the Olango Island reefs and wetlands found potential returns on investments of 60 percent. By lowering costs to communities, management can be sustained, giving damaged and overfished marine ecosystems the chance to recover. The recovery of fish stocks within MPAs produces spill-over effects into the adjacent fishing areas providing economic benefits to fishers, which can incentivize them to comply with the no-take zone rules of the MPA.25,48 Where reefs are allowed to recover, the improved health and biodiversity of these ecosystems encourages divers to visit the area, with potential to provide income earning opportunities for community members and local infrastructure development.

Social capital can be enhanced through incentivizing participation in community management. Community management of MPAs increases social capital through participation in decision-making,49–50 which increases the acceptability of local rules for resource use.51 Reducing management costs, including time spent by members participating in monitoring and decision-making work by injecting additional funding is likely to increase willingness of locals to be involved in the management of their marine resources.

Expanding the Platform

Such a crowd-funding platform could be further expanded to include private industry and nonprofit organization sponsorships for projects, or paid advertisement slots in pop-up infographics associated with each MPA or project on the website. Contributions could be compulsory for dive shops and foreign-owned tourism operations, and payments over a certain threshold, or those from more ethical and responsible operators, might result in increased visibility on the website, generating traffic to their own sites.


Klaus Stiefel
A clownfish (Amphiprion Ocellaris) in an anemone in Cebu, Central Visayas, Philippines.

The implementation of such a mechanism inevitably carries some risks. The system may be met with resistance, not only from government units not willing to work with NGOs but also from communities concerned about centralized collection and management of funds. There are risks that the fund could be subject to illegal practices, corruption, and bribery, so transparency must be prioritized. As a funding source reliant on tourism, which is already seasonal, it is also at risk of not being sustained in times of crisis. Mass coral bleaching or typhoons could negatively affect dive tourism and reduce income. It is thus necessary that such events be factored into decisions about distribution. A strategy for longer-term investment of some of the funds for disaster relief, or to smooth income cycles, should be considered.

Final Thoughts         

The enhanced and ongoing protection of Philippine coral reefs from increasing anthropogenic pressures is of paramount importance. Supporting community-based MPA management to preserve ecosystem function and sustained well-being at the local level and at broader social scales requires a more efficient and effective financing mechanism. By having those who are most able to afford costs pay for efforts to sustain marine biodiversity, imbalances in wealth between groups can be reduced, increasing support for MPAs and building social cohesion.

Additional funding support can enable community-managed MPAs to reach their effectiveness potential. This can then be recognized at a broader scale while also providing a mechanism for tourists to learn about MPA systems and local communities in an engaging and positive experience. If it works in the Philippines, other countries may be encouraged to devolve authority of establishing and managing MPAs to the local level, enabling increased coverage of critical reef ecosystems and enhanced biodiversity around the world.


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