The pod of long-snouted spinner dolphins are suddenly all around us. They move like torpedoes in the water, surfing the bow wave of our WWF research vessel and jumping out of the water so close to me that I can hear the whoosh of the blows as they take a breath. As quickly as they arrived they are gone, diving deep into the blue currents of the coastal waters of the Sulu Sea.
The team from WWF-Philippines I am traveling with are elated. I have joined them on one of their regular trips working with local stakeholders for the conservation of these magnificent marine mammals, coral reefs and fisheries as part of WWF’s efforts across the Coral Triangle.
The Coral Triangle is at the epicentre of coral reef biodiversity. It is a marine wonderland that borders Australia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to our north, and includes the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste.
It is one of WWF-Australia’s key priorities because of the astonishing richness of life found here and because many of the species we work to protect in our own waters travel through here. The currents that these spinner dolphins are swimming in carry a huge variety of life between this region and Australia. Other migratory species that use this blue highway are turtles, whales and tuna. We can only conserve these species, and the valuable fish stocks that underpin our own fishing industries, with successful conservation efforts in the Coral Triangle.
But while the currents flowing through the Sulu Sea connect us all, in the Philippines – like Indonesia, PNG and Solomon Islands – the local coastal communities that depend daily on these natural resources are poor.
Average income for a Sulu Sea household is around 4000 P per month, that’s about $3AUD a day for a whole family. Small island communities are completely dependent on their local natural resources and the environment for their food and livelihoods.
So the big question is, how can we ensure that the Coral Triangle is protected whilst also providing food and livelihood security for millions of people?
This is one of the reasons for the World Bank’s announcement in Singapore this month of a $1.5 billion Global Partnerships for Oceans – aimed at improving protection of marine and fishery resources and improving livelihoods. Ensuring that we manage our marine and fishery resources sustainably is critical to poverty reduction.
In all of these efforts, Australia is playing an important role. Our universities and scientists have helped build capacity across the region in marine and fisheries conservation. The Australian Government, through AusAID, is investing millions of dollars in support of the Coral Triangle Initiative, an innovative partnership with the five countries in the region, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), other international organisations and WWF.
With me on the boat is Marivel Dygico, the WWF-Philippines leader of the Sulu Sea Programme, part of a Coral Triangle team spread across five countries. She tells me how WWF is “applying true stakeholder principles”, that have been successful in bringing all stakeholders together to recognise the importance of sustainably managing our marine resources.
Marivel tells me how five Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs) in the area are managed by the local communities. Local surveys have shown that these communities now have better food security in terms of consistent supply (of fish and marine products). WWF has supported micro-financing projects to assist those local communities to have small enterprises that give them income but also better manage the natural resources.
In the nearby Tubbataha World Heritage Area, 10 per cent of a user’s fee paid to enter the marine park goes to the local community to be invested in livelihood support development projects, such as the ‘farm to market’ road. These mechanisms build local ownership of the marine protected area, and the results are tangible.
“We are working on the sustainable financing of the reef to ensure that efforts are environmentally, socially and economically sustainable,” Marivel tells me. The project has a wide range of partners: local communities, fishers groups, the Philippine navy, coast guard and the Cagayancillo municipality are all key partners.
For WWF, our mission to ensure a future for both nature and people is reflected in all that we do. Our work is critical to protect this area of the Coral Triangle that is outstanding for its marine biodiversity. It is also vital to promoting sustainable solutions for local communities that depend on these natural resources for their livelihoods.
Protecting biodiversity while ensuring food security is surely one of the great challenges facing humanity for the 21st Century. Reducing poverty and the sustainable management of our natural resources are two sides of the same coin.
The knowledge, passion and determination of people like Marivel, and WWF’s approach of working with local communities towards a solution, gives me hope that we can succeed in meeting this challenge.
As we head back to the bustling port, I am reminded that we are in a region in which more than 100 million people depend on the oceans. It is critical that efforts by all stakeholders in the region and along the fisheries supply chains contribute to helping save our seas.
Witnessing this work on the ground reminds me that we are all connected through the conservation of our marine environment and species. To protect our marine biodiversity in Australia, we must also do so for the Coral Triangle.
WWF believes that marine protected areas (MPAs), both coastal and offshore are essential to the sustainable management of our oceans. Our long term aim is a network of MPAs across the whole Coral Triangle and South West Pacific to support biodiversity and local livelihoods.
The dolphins reappear under the boat, stay for another five minutes and then are off again chasing a large school of bait fish. They are majestic mammals of the seas, but also important indicators of ocean health, and for both reasons it is critical they must not disappear forever. If they do disappear, it will mean that we have lost not only these magnificent mammals, but also the opportunity to secure the security of 100 million people in the region – connected to us by the currents of the seas.