by Anna Oposa

This post is one of a series on projects supported by the Anderson Cabot Center’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, we support researchers, conservationists, and grassroots organizations around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the oceans.

Scuba divers from all over the world travel to Malapascua Island, Cebu, Philippines, with the same objective: to see thresher sharks (Alopias pelagicus) in Monad Shoal.

Monad Shoal, a seamount off Malapascua, is the only place in the world so far where thresher sharks can be seen almost daily at recreational depths (30 meters) due to their symbiotic relationship with cleaner wrasses. This shark species, classed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is clearly the superstar of the island. The shark’s distinct shape, marked by its long tail, is on the logo of most dive operators and resorts. Its grace, doe-like eyes, and presence have attracted many tourists, researchers, and conservationists – including myself.


Anna Oposa
MCAF Fellow Anna Oposa.

I began working in Malapascua in 2012 with big dreams: to protect thresher sharks and establish the country’s first shark and ray sanctuary. I was 24 years old with no community-based conservation experience, and the movement I co-founded, called Save Philippine Seas, was just a year old. For the next few years, I learned and failed quickly. However, with the help of the business sector, dive operators, advocates, local governments, national government agencies, and scientists, the big dreams came true. In 2015, an Executive Order declared Monad Shoal and another site called Gato Island as shark and ray sanctuaries, and all three species of thresher sharks became nationally protected. These milestones didn’t just “take a village,” as the expression goes, they required a national movement, riding on the global momentum and attention for shark and ray conservation, and entailed multiple heartbreaks and setbacks.

I wish I could tell you that that was the happy ending. But anyone in this line of work knows that issues evolve. Solve one, and another one – or two – will arise. In our case, we began to see the impact of focusing on Monad Shoal and Malapascua. By enhancing marine protected areas (MPAs) that are no-take zones, local fisherfolk had smaller fishing grounds, creating friction between the artisanal fishing and tourism industries. The neighboring coastal communities, Carnaza and Maya, needed resources for capacity-building and environmental education as well because they had MPAs near them that they could learn to manage. They too needed seats at the table for development to be truly inclusive and sustainable.

Another challenge we had to confront was political instability. In the Philippines, local government officials such as mayors and local legislators have three-year terms and can be elected up to three times. Since 2010, the municipality has had three different mayors, and will elect a fourth in the upcoming elections. Each new mayor was a reset button, inevitably slowing progress.

Thresher Shark. Photo by: Anna Oposa.
Thresher sharks are a major draw for dive tourism in the Philippines. Photo by: Anna Oposa.

The support from the Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF) helped address these issues. The proposal had three objectives: diversify the participation of stakeholders, strengthen and enhance community organizing and participation, and collect relevant and realistic information for an enforceable, socially just, science-based MPA Network Ordinance.

To meet these objectives, we used the financial resources to draft a Management Plan, review existing local legislation, use data collected from previous projects and studies, and travel to Carnaza, Maya, and around Malapascua. The Management Plan and amendment to a local ordinance to create an MPA Network are meant to serve as blueprints for the site’s long-term conservation plans, regardless of the current administration.

In the coastal communities, our lean team of three, in partnership with the local government, organized stakeholder consultations. It was the first time that stakeholder consultations for marine conservation were held in Carnaza and Maya, and the turnout surprised us. In Maya, 24 participants attended. In Carnaza, 42 participants joined. For each consultation, there were representatives from fisherfolk, government employees, housewives, and fish wardens. They shared their ideas, asked questions, and opened up about their frustrations. They also repeatedly expressed gratitude for being included in the dialogue. “Finally,” several of them remarked.

Shark shelter stakeholders.
A key part of strengthening the shark shelter has been consulting with local stakeholders.

The feedback from the participants brought us back to the drawing board. We made edits and applied changes to the Management Plan, ordinance, and communication materials. By mid-December, we were able to submit the materials to the local government officials for review and approval. Through a series of follow-up messages and informal meetings, we’ve been informed that there is no major opposition to any of the proposals.

Four months into 2019 and the Management Plan has not yet been endorsed, and the ordinance has not yet been passed due to the upcoming elections. This is not necessarily bad news. Our local elections are coming up in May 2019, which means our government officials have their hands full with campaigning. Only after the oath-taking of the new officials in June will momentum pick up again.

Then we begin a new chapter of the thresher shark tales.


Anna Oposa is Co-Founder, Chief Mermaid, and Executive Director of Save Philippine Seas. She is also a 2019 MCAF Fellow.