Southeast Asia is home to 35% of the world’s 18 million hectares of mangrove forests. However, 70–80% of the region’s mangroves have been cleared for aquaculture over the last 30 years. Why establish aquaculture in mangrove habitat? Well, because these ecosystems have high biological productivity and are often easily accessible. Given their tidal nature, they are also economical areas to lower the costs to create pump systems for water intake.
In the Philippines, shrimp farming was a major contributor to mangrove destruction during the 1980s shrimp boom. Fish farming is also a big contributor: back in 2007, our country was the 8th top fish producing country in the world. It is therefore important to share knowledge about where our food comes from, so as to raise awareness and improve our chances of restoring some of these ecosystems.
Technicalities of fishpond ownership and tenure
The Philippines’ mangrove forest area is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) but is also released by them for aquaculture under multiple tenure arrangements, including titled ownership, tax declaration and temporary leaseholds under Fishpond Lease Agreements (FLAs). FLAs are granted under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources of the Department of Agriculture (DA-BFAR), where there is a law that if a fishpond lease fails to comply with requirements set upon by the DA-BFAR, it will be canceled. This law encompasses abandoned (no operational activity, subleasing, or neglect of payments), underutilized (no commercial production within three years) and undeveloped (pond infrastructure absent) fishponds, which are termed AUU.
Because of some challenges in conversion such as the tenure agreements, the country’s greenbelt rehabilitation programs continue to focus on low intertidal areas up to the seafront, which then threatens the nearby seagrass ecosystem.
How I started with fishpond conversion
My calling for transforming fishponds to mangroves started back in 2019, where I led a conversion project for Marine Conservation Philippines where I worked with at that time. We began in the region of Negros Oriental, where we first mapped and identified different tenure agreements and proved to the Protected Area Management Bureau (PAMB) that conversion of the sites was possible. But that was only the beginning: even if we had already visited and ground- truthed the area, and even if there was obvious proof that the operation was AUU, the fishpond lessees tended to be reluctant to give it up because of their feelings of belonging and ownership – despite the fact that the land had only been rented from the government. Sometimes, lessees would threaten the people trying to convert the fishponds back to mangrove forest, meaning that FLA cancellation and/or reversion only rarely occurred.
On a positive note, we did connect with some fishpond lessees who did not know what to do with the land anymore and were willing to give it back to the DENR. Out of all the mapped areas, we secured about 1% for reversion – and then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, which put the project on pause.
It can be challenging to communicate the benefits of mangrove ecosystems to communities in the area, as these ecosystems need time for the trees to mature before they start providing ecosystem services. I found some success by informing the community members that there are other areas in the Philippines – and elsewhere in the world – who are taking integrated approaches to mangrove restoration and livelihood development, which is in turn putting food on their plates.
What is the benefit of fishpond conversion as a whole?
Most fishponds in the Philippines are sited in middle to upper intertidal, so mangrove reforestation can provide important storm protection services and reduce sediment erosion during typhoon season for the communities who live nearby. A case study conducted by Duncan (2016), in a specific municipality of the Philippines, found that carbon storage and greenbelt protection were greater in converted fishponds than in seafront mangrove sites with high wave action – despite their slow growth. In total, 5,000–8,000 tonnes could be sequestered in just 6.5 years if all of the abandoned ponds in the study area were reverted back to mangroves. Once these fishponds are converted to mangroves, they also support a greater variety of mangrove species than the few that can handle the high salinity (salt concentration) in seafront areas. Diverse mangrove species will also create a home for diverse fauna and other ecosystem services it can provide to the communities.
What’s next for me?
Fishpond conversion brings up complex issues and can have challenging socio-economic ramifications. Restoration of fishpond areas is not easy, which is why the best approach is to develop partnerships with stakeholders and highlight livelihood opportunities for the communities with which we work. In our project, we are exploring options such as integrating apiculture and/or crab farming within the rehabilitating mangrove ecosystems. These kinds of opportunities may help locals to see the benefits and value of mangrove restoration.
We are currently working across two sites. One site is located in Municipality of Aringay in Luzon which has mainly milkfish farming. The site is a former fishpond spanning about 9,000 square metres (2.2 acres). There, we are in the initial process of presenting to the Mayor and soon signing a Memorandum of Understanding to restore the pond and introduce community-based conservation and livelihood strategies, through which we will work to get the communities on board and revert their fishpond to mangroves whilst providing livelihood opportunities throughout the process.
The other site is located in Macajalar Bay, Northern Mindanao, which is overseen by an alliance of 14 municipalities. The alliance is currently prioritizing mangrove restoration in the Bay. There are approximately 54 hectares of restorable area, including some AUU fishponds. We are also in the process of signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the McKeough Marine Center, the research arm of Xavier University, to collaborate on the restoration of some of these areas. Outside of academia, we also have the support of communities in the area, who are very willing to help restore the local mangroves. The local community associations are running a mangrove nursery, which is helping them to maintain livelihoods during the pandemic whilst contributing to restoring the area. This example demonstrates that collaborative efforts can pave the way for successful restoration – we just need to find the appropriate support systems, especially for complex issues like AUU fishponds.
To restore these fishponds to mangroves, it takes political will, participatory management, coordination with DENR and DA-BFAR, and livelihood provision for local communities. It might take us a while, but as long as we get the support and enabling environment that we need, restoration is possible.