The Environment of Bolinao Marine Laboratory

Bolinao, so rich in coastal resources and the need to protect them

By the Marine Science Institute, University of the Philippines

BML is surrounded by a variety of tropical marine ecosystems such as coral reefs, seagrasses and mangrove forests.

Bolinao is endowed with productive coastal ecosystems – seagrass, coral reef, mangrove, and estuarine areas which harbor a high diversity of marine species. Located in the northwestern tip of Lingayen Gulf, it is a critical source of larvae and propagules of various marine organisms that provide food and income to the local communities dependent on nearshore fisheries and tourism in the entire NW Luzon. The municipal waters of Bolinao provide food and employment to local residents as well as neighboring municipalities. However, there have been many major threats to the socio-economic benefits from the sea due to overfishing and degradation of habitats. Research and development projects are undertaken by UP MSI (University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute) in partnership with local communities and the local government to address some of these threats.

Seagrasses and Mangroves – Provider and protector

Nowhere in northern Philippines can one find seagrass as diverse and extensive as in Bolinao. Ten of the 16 species are found in its environs, occupying an aggregate area of more than 20,000 hectares. This makes the ecology of Bolinao seagrass-based. Hence, at the 60-hectare Bolinao Seagrass Reserve, the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, representatives of practically all major groups of benthic coastal plants and animals are found, most of which are with great local economic value and markedly dominated by the seagrasses, Enhalus (tarektek) and Thalassia (lusay), the seaweeds (ar-arusep, gulaman), various shells and other invertebrates (kuden-kuden, balat) and the rabbitfish (padas, danggit).

Unfortunately, the seagrasses of Bolinao are being degraded and destroyed at a rapid pace by both natural events and, the major factor, human activities. So, with the help of the people of Bolinao, the Seagrass and Mangrove Ecosystems Analysis Laboratory (SMEAL) of UP MSI is developing ways to effectively address the issues brought about by the fish cages, other practices, and climate change, which adversely affect seagrass. There is a need to protect the large vulnerable seagrass beds, with their goods and services, including carbon pools stored in these systems, and restore their carbon sequestration capacity to help mitigate environmental and global changes. Immediate steps should be taken by local coastal managers and policy makers leading to the effective protection of coastal vegetated ecosystems.

Mangroves are also one of the most important marine ecosystems in Bolinao. They serve as nursery grounds of many species of fish and invertebrates as well as habitat to many terrestrial animals. Bolinao has 3 hectares of secondary natural mangroves. One of the environmental issues concerning mangroves is the conversion of mangroves areas to fishponds and saltbeds, which eventually caused the decline of mangrove forests in the area. Community-managed mangrove rehabilitation projects in Bolinao started in the year 1999. People’s organizations actively involved in this project were mostly marginal fishers. The first Community-Based Forest Management Agreement (CBFMA) in Lingayen Gulf was awarded to the People’s Organizations from Pilar, Bolinao. To date, People’s Organizations are still very active in mangrove rehabilitation programs in the municipality.

Coral Reefs – Conservation and restoration

The coastal municipality of Bolinao is highly dependent on the bounty that the sea can offer. The high productivity of Bolinao waters is attributed to the existence of coral reefs that fringe its coasts. However, Bolinao coral reefs have experienced dramatic degradation and decline in recent years due to natural and man-made stressors. Aside from the sea grass reserve, there are eight coral reef marine protected areas in Bolinao. Local fisher folk have cited various benefits from the MPAs:

  • Increase in fish density and coral cover inside MPAs
  • Return of species that were affected by illegal fishing
  • Strengthened people’s organizations

Opportunities abound due to the resilience of the people of Bolinao, as seen in the people’s organizations’ co-management engagements in local governance of MPA and integrating other CRM efforts such as fisheries management and their scaling up of efforts towards broader cooperative arrangement (e.g., MPA network and inter-LGU alliances in Lingayen Gulf).

Coral reef restoration is one of the acceptable solutions, in tandem with establishment of marine protected areas and other conservation efforts, which UP MSI is advocating to help bring the degraded reef areas back to life. UP MSI’s reef restoration program aims to assist coral reef recovery by developing coral culture techniques and transplantation methods that are adaptable to the local community. Training workshops and coral transplantation activities were conducted in several coastal barangays, such as Lucero, Balingasay, Binabalian and Victory, and participated by representatives from the host and neighboring barangays, the local government unit, and people’s organizations. This endeavor will succeed through the combined effort of all these stakeholders. Eventually, restored coral reefs can again provide the Bolinao coastal communities with improved livelihood opportunities in terms of food- and tourism-related income.

Marine Fisheries – Essential for food security and sustainable livelihood in Bolinao

The municipality of Bolinao is one of the major fishing grounds along the Lingayen Gulf. Commonly caught marine fish species include groupers, snappers, rabbitfishes, mojarras, fusiliers, parrotfishes, goatfishes, cutlassfishes, jacks, mullets, and herrings. Seagrass and coral reef associated fishes like rabbitfishes, parrotfishes, and groupers are usually caught by gill nets, spear guns and handlines.

Among these species, groupers, rabbitfishes and snappers are high- valued species. The Siganus fuscescens, locally termed as barangen is a top species caught by fish corrals, spears and gillnets. The dried barangen commonly called danggit is a well-known product of Bolinao that contributes significantly to its fishery. However, due to unregulated harvesting, fish catches and sizes have declined substantially over the years. Fish catch monitoring was conducted to generate important fisheries data to be used to determine if, when, and where fish catches are increasing or decreasing. The implementation of a fisheries registration and permit system is fundamental in managing fisheries resources so that local communities will gain equitable and optimum benefits from the municipal fisheries.

Sea urchins, Sea cucumbers and other invertebrates
Aside from finfishes, various marine invertebrates (e.g. shrimps, crabs, lobsters, various shells – didila, tahong, kabloy, talaba; sea urchins- kuden-kuden, maratangtang, sea cucumbers – balat, etc.) are very valuable resources of Bolinao. These organisms are important in maintaining the productivity of coastal habitats and are sources of protein for local communities.

Invertebrate culinary specialities can be developed as one of the tourism attractions of the town. Bolinao was known as a source of high grade “uni” or the eggs of kuden-kuden, dried sea cucumbers or trepang in particular balat putian – one of the highest valued species of over twenty species found in Bolinao, and the nylon shell kabloy. These are very high-value trade and marine products in the Japanese, Chinese and Korean export markets as well as in local specialty restaurants. Unfortunately, unregulated harvesting of these species and degradation of coastal habitats led to the collapse of the multi-million invertebrate fisheries and the loss of the primary source of income of hundreds of small fisher households in the 1990s up to the early 2000s. Sea urchin grow-out culture and sea cucumber sea ranching were developed and piloted in Bolinao by UP MSI in partnership with local community organizations to help rebuild depleted populations of these species. The recovery of the kuden-kuden fishery and establishment of a spawning population of balat putian in the pilot sea ranch in Victory provide opportunities to secure a sustainable source of livelihood for small fishers in Bolinao. However, strict implementation of fishery management measures is essential to sustain recovery and attain long-term economic and ecological benefits.

Giant clams
The Municipality of Bolinao and the 1st District of Pangasinan cooperated with the UP MSI BML Giant Clam Project (GCP) to establish two giant clam nurseries in waters off Lucero and Germinal. Restocking activities were part of the LGU’s efforts to conserve giant clams, which more than 20 years ago have been reported as threatened and endangered species.

The GCP donated a total of 522 cultured large Tridacna gigas (the true giant clam, locally known as taklobo or mel-let) and T. squamosa (the scaly giant clam, locally known as hagdan-hagdan). These giant clam ocean nurseries are now being monitored by local stewards who were trained by the GCP. These clam nurseries will improve the recruitment potential of these species of giant clams, and enhance the ecotourism initiatives in Pangasinan.

Developing Marine natural products

The diverse seaweed species which abound in Bolinao have a lot of potential for the development of health products. For example, fucoxanthin, a brown pigment found in all brown seaweeds is a slimming agent used in commercial slimming drinks and has anti-cancer properties. Preliminary studies on brown seaweeds of Bolinao have indicated that Sargassum spp. (locally known as aragan) contains the highest content of fucoxanthin. Moreover, Sargassum can also be developed as feed for livestock and fertilizers since these brown seaweeds have compounds found to prevent influenza in swine and other diseases in shrimps. With the cooperation of the BFAR and local government units such as Bolinao, the seaweed chemistry research program of UP MSI continues to make progress in developing value-added products to expand industrial utilization of seaweeds in the country.

Likewise, marine sponges and their associated microorganisms are valuable because they produce novel compounds which have the potential to treat diseases that affect society. Collection trips in Bolinao resulted in the isolation of microorganisms that may be the source of these compounds. Bioassays have shown that some of the microorganisms can produce compounds with anti-infective properties against pathogens like Staphylococcus aureus.

These compounds will be analyzed using spectroscopy to determine their chemical structures and novelty. The information obtained from these studies highlight the value of sponges to society and promote the conservation of Philippine coral reefs and other ecosystems where they are found.

Sustainable Mariculture – a big challenge for Bolinao

The milkfish aquaculture industry also plays a significant role in fisheries production of the municipality, with Bolinao contributing to make the province of Pangasinan the top producer of milkfish in the Philippines in 2005. Fish farming in Bolinao, in the form of pens and cages, began in 1995 and intensified in the last decade due to its potential for economic gain. As a consequence, however, there have been major environmental changes in the coastal waters of Bolinao such as water quality degradation, algal blooms, and fish kills. The first massive fish kill that happened in Bolinao, Pangasinan in 2002 coincided with a brownish discoloration of the water due to the bloom or very high density of the phytoplankton Prorocentrum minimum.

This massive fish kill where an estimated loss of P500M was incurred was an eye opener for Bolinao. The people of Bolinao and neighboring municipalities (e.g., Anda) have learned and coped with the devastating effects of this massive fish kill. Representatives from the local government, some government agencies, fishermen and fish rearers/aquaculturists participated in training-workshops conducted by UP MSI on Fish Kill prevention, mitigation and management. Measures such as the Marine Emergency Response System (MERSys) which enables the LGU to anticipate and to quickly respond to marine related emergencies and regulating the issuance of licenses were initially taken. The continued occurrence of fish kills, although of lesser magnitude than the massive one in 2002, suggests that sustainable mariculture remains a challenge. Immediate and long-term steps that should be taken include improved siting of fish pens and cages, regular monitoring of water quality conditions and microalgal species, compliance with allowable siting and fish stocking limits, and adherence to good fish farming practices.

Bolinao has become a key learning destination for marine resource management  initiatives because of exemplary models of community-based environmental efforts and the research activities at the UP MSI Bolinao Marine Laboratory (BML). Lessons learned in Bolinao have benefited coastal stakeholders and local governments all over the country and other countries in the region. Some successes have been accomplished in stock restoration, marine protected areas, management of mariculture and other science-based coastal resources management efforts. With unwavering and enhanced political will by the local government to invest in and implement the municipality’s coastal resources management programs and the cooperation of more community members from various sectors, Bolinao has immense opportunities for sustainable marine resources and economic development for many generations to come.