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Adaptive diversified food systems for tropical coastal communities

Converting a degraded ecosystem-based food source into a sustainable multi-source food system for coastal communities

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

MER-Lab (Marine Ecosystem Restoration Lab), Tel Aviv University

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Tel Aviv University, Western Philippines University, Palawan State University, University of Rhode Island, Sam Ratulangi University, Prince Songkla University, Discovery World Corp., OFRA Aqua Plants, Algae-Smart

Website of Legally Registered Entity;

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Tel Aviv

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Aborlan, a municipality in Palawan Island, covers an area of 807 km^2.

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

I started working as a restoration ecologist in the Philippines 12 years ago, following contact with a local mayor in Palawan. Since then I have been involved in various projects related to the planning of protection and restoration in different locations, mainly in Palawan.

During my first years working in this area I learned two important lessons: First, top-down directives alone cannot work. Working with a mayor is insufficient to pave the way to a solution for the people in the village. The only effective way is to combine top-down with bottom-up by working in full collaboration with the villagers. Second, the fishermen are themselves victims, just as are the reef creatures and the environment. During my early stages as a restoration practitioner, I tended to blame the fishermen for destroying the reefs. I regarded them as the major cause for the decline of the coral reefs, due to over-fishing and the common use of destructive fishing methods (e.g. dynamite and cyanide). It took me several years to realize that these fishermen are the victims of a large-scale social-ecological process, and that the solution cannot lie in protection, restoration, or other approaches that focus solely on mitigating the reef while ignoring the people’s needs.

While working and understanding the true reality of the situation, my empathy increased for both the surviving communities of fishermen and the degrading reefs; and, despite the many frustrations that I experience, I feel that safeguarding the reefs and the people who rely on them, is my life mission – in the tropics and specifically in the Philippines, which is like a second home to me.

I selected the area of Aborlan due to my familiarity with this area and its marine ecosystems, my personal interactions with local people from academia and in the field, and the promised help from the municipality mayor. However, any coastal area, in the Philippines or in another tropical country, could fit into the proposed vision.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The coastal area of Aborlan hosts fishing communities in small villages (barangay) and tiny coastal settlements (citio). The people are very friendly, living very simple lives, with nearly half of them below the poverty line. Most of them have very basic education, with low expectation of any change in their lives, or what life might bring to. Moreover, most of them have little belief in their own ability to improve their lives. Such thinking probably derives from the basic need to survive (immediate need for food) and their limited skills due to malnutrition and poor education. These symptoms of the poverty trap are specifically related to the reef degradation process, which is leading in many places, including Aborlan, to a reef state that can no longer provide sufficient food (quantity or quality), or a basic livelihood.   

The main income of nearly half of the Aborlan population is from fishing, but, with the degradation of the reef and decline in fishing yields, some are seeking small alternative livelihoods, like backyard agricultural production and small-scale aquaculture projects (e.g. family-scale seaweed farms). 

The basic food is rice, usually with small fish  and, if affordable, meat (mainly chicken and pork); and in some places coconuts and bananas are common and affordable. Consumption of vegetables is usually low, and the food quality is often poor, leading to malnutrition. 

The kids joyfully exploit their environment (the sea, the fishing boats (‘bangka’), the palm trees and the sand) as their playgrounds, and can be described as “happy kids”. However, due to the generally low level of education and poor food quality, many of the children who grow up in these poor fishing villages possess significantly lower skills and cognitive abilities than their better-off counterparts. 

The coastal area of Aborlan presents a wide range of environmental conditions, marine ecosystems (notably coral reefs, sea-grass meadows and mangrove forests) and preservation levels - from rich and relatively less deteriorated outer reefs of the ‘Seven Line reef’, to extremely degraded sites severely damaged by dynamite-, cyanide- and over-fishing, as well as pollution and siltation from land-based activities (e.g. deforestation and sewage), and diverse other stressors. The majority of the reefs are, however, in an advanced degradation state, and the current protection attempts are not mitigating the decline. 

A major environmental issue is the over-withdrawal of groundwater and the lack of sewage treatment which, together with the pollution from agricultural effluents, lead to a problem of adequate quality of drinking water and contaminated water that pollutes the coastal area, notably the reefs. The non-coastal area of Aborlan is covered by relatively wide areas of croplands, while some fishing villages practice small-scale agriculture, like piggeries and rice fields, all of which add to the local pollution of the soil, groundwater, and the sea. 

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Our model food system is based on the tropical coastal fisheries, which are mainly based on the coral reefs. The world’s coral reefs support six million fishermen and nearly 400 million people. However, these highly productive ecosystems – fish-rich oases in nutrient-poor “ocean deserts”, are rapidly degrading together with their ecosystem services, notably that of food production. Consequently, coastal communities that rely on the single-source food supply of coral reefs are suffering a decline in life quality and are being driven into poverty traps. The continuing degradation of the world’s reefs has already trapped millions of families into poverty, whose outcomes are famine, malnutrition, inadequate child development, and health issues. Degradation of the reefs is projected to continue (e.g. the latest report by the IPCC 2019), and, if not reversed, it is expected to drive many more coastal communities into poverty and misery. 

Although there are numerous attempts, mainly by protection (marine reserves, or marine protected areas, MPAs) and ecological restoration, to save the world’s reefs, the decline is continuing at an accelerating pace. Many scientists argue that due to the massive impact of a myriad of anthropogenic stressors, from local pollution, habitat destruction and over-extraction, to global human-driven climate change, efforts at reversing the decline, like protection and restoration, are likely to fail. The outcome is that despite making effort to reverse the decline, we cannot rely on the reefs as adequate food systems for hundreds of millions of people. Nevertheless, for traditional reasons, as well due to the low abilities and self-confidence of the youth, many of them follow their parents into fishing as their main source of food and livelihood. This disparity between the declining fishing yields and the ‘fishing culture’ in coastal communities, has led to a further detachment from traditional fishing methods towards new practices and technologies, with higher impact on the reef, such as cyanide fishing, blast fishing (which still exists in many areas), fish-finders, compressors (for deeper and longer spearfishing divers) and motor boats (to reach remote, less degraded reef sites).  

The growing impact on the reef is projected to lead to a further decline in fishing yields, unstable supply, and establishment of an unsustainable food system, whose exploitation accelerates the environmental degradation, and reduces resilience and adaptation to climate change. The expected social consequences will result in ever more desperate fishermen increasing their impact on the reefs, and the descent of more coastal communities into poverty traps. 

In Aborlan, 1,736 fishermen in 9 fishing villages support 17,385 people (nearly 50% of Aborlan’s population); and nearly half of Aborlan’s 7,310 households, (3,421 households), are below the poverty line. These figures highlight the severe problem of a declining reef-based food source and livelihood. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

To safeguard the food systems of the millions of people in tropical countries who rely on coastal marine ecosystems as their main food system, there is a need: 1) to improve the health of their environment; and 2) to expand the food sources, beyond fishing, in order to create food system diversity (“portfolio of food sources”). The overall idea is to design a system that will increase the food source diversity, reduce the dependency of local human communities on external food sources, improve the food system’s adaptation to varying, unpredictable conditions – notably climate change, and promote sustainability.

Our vision is based on three applicable principles. First, a holistic view of the nature-based food system. The coral reefs, the coastal waters in their area, the freshwater systems (rivers and groundwater), the watershed lands (natural and agricultural lands), and the human activities within these environments should all be viewed as interlinked components of an integrated system that produces the food. Second, the need for a multi-sourced food system. The growing human impact and the unpredictable conditions of global climate change require a portfolio of different solutions for acquiring food sources as well as alternative livelihoods, in order to maximize the chances of some of the sources’ ability to   tolerate the uncertain future conditions. Third, a long-term shift process. The transition from fishing-based to multi-sourced food systems and environmentally- responsible communities will be a long process, the core of which is education, a generational shift, and the abandoning of traditional and cultural norms that harm the environment (e.g. cyanide fishing and over-use of pesticides) for the sake of sustainable habits (e.g. fishing in artificial-reefs; constructed wetlands for sewage treatment).

The rationale is that such alternative food-livelihood sources not only will not harm the reef, but can alleviate the impact on the reef of other human activities, notably fishing.  We propose a suite of backup food and livelihood systems to be applied in parallel with our attempt to remove stressors and restore the reef and its ecosystem services (via protection and restoration interventions):

- Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) for pelagic and semi-pelagic fish (as alternative fishing grounds in open sea)

- Artificial Reefs (ARs) for reef fishes (as alternative fishing grounds near the natural reefs)

- Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) systems that reduce the impact on the environment

- Extractive aquaculture - farming seaweed, shellfish, sea-cucumbers and other filter-feeding edible species

- Family-scale Spirulina culture, i.e. an innovative seawater-based Spirulina system

- Development of a responsible tourism system (‘eco-tourism’) based on constructed attractive artificial reefs, citizen-science tourism (e.g. active involvement in coral-reef restoration) and other diving attractions, such as guided shark and manta-ray diving

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

The life of the Aborlan fishing community is expected to be upgraded in terms of health, child development, food production, and adaptation to unpredictable environmental conditions (notably climate change). A prerequisite for the visions’ success in improving quality and stability, is education, with emphasis on today’s young generations, who will be the leading forces of 2050. Our education plan will include tackling the present culture and habits related to environmental awareness, diet preferences, fishing norms, and new skills (‘capacity building’ - the knowledge needed to establish and maintain aquaculture farms).  

The first practices following initiation of the vision’s project will be directed at improving the health of the environment through the alleviation, or removal, of local stressors (like sewage and pollution of agricultural effluents), consequently improving the quality of drinking water and human health. In addition, we will begin establishment of alternative food sources (e.g. FADs and Spirulina culture), whose technologies already exist and whose yields can be harvested within a short time (a year). The outcomes of these initial steps are expected to be reflected in better human health and invigoration of the entire population within a short period. Simultaneously, we will begin education programs to enrich the local community’s knowledge, notably the school pupils, regarding the environment and its importance for a nutritious and stable food supply, human health, and the future of humanity.  

In the longer term, in parallel to establishing more complex food production systems,  our team of social experts and local practitioners, will promote, via education, environmental awareness and seek to change the people’s perceptions about “right and wrong” in fishing, agriculture and other practices that are related to the environment and food production – actions that are expected to stabilize the local food system and improve the people’s health. 

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Overall, the food system of 2050 will be characterized by diverse, sustainable food production and feasible livelihood sources, in a healthier than present environment and with higher-skilled and environmentally-aware community members. A rich food system in a healthier environment is more resilient and adaptive to change, and has higher chances of coping with the unpredictable conditions of climate change and other local-to-global stressors. 

The Aborlan of 2050 can potentially be described by either one of two extreme narratives (or any option along the scale between these two extremes), each of which fits an extreme case of potential climate change effects – from negligible or mild local effects to severe effects.  According to the first narrative, climate change effects will be harsh in the Aborlan area. This will be expressed in a nearly 100% reef degradation due to mass coral bleaching and mortality followed by the takeover of seaweeds and sponges (a process termed ‘phase shift’). Such massive reef degradation will lead to the collapse of the reef fishery. However, following the infrastructure establishment and the community preparedness since the 2020s, this hostile process will have little effect on the people of Aborlan due to the remaining food sources – that is, the alternative food production outlets that have been developed during the early years of the 2020s, These include pelagic fish harvesting using FADs, several of the extractive aquaculture options (e.g. seaweeds, sea-cucumbers, and oysters), IMTA and seawater Spirulina culture, as well as benthic fishing in the artificial reef area. It should be noted that some of these alternative food sources might also be affected by the climate change. However, in the aquaculture case, some flexibility is possible by substituting species and/or genotypes with climate-change-resistant options.  

The other extreme narrative is that of mild climate change effects that do not significantly affect the coral reefs of Aborlan. Moreover, the alleviation of local stressors will have overcome the growing impact of climate change and the reef fishery will be stable and even relatively lower than in 2020, due to compliance with fishery management, and a supply from the other food sources, which not only fill the gap but also boost the local fishermen’s income. 

In both narrative options, Aborlan is expected to be a better place for its inhabitants. The quality of living will be characterized by improved water quality, less environmental pollution, a healthier ecosystem state, and healthier people due to better food availability, improved diet and the healthier environment. All the impoverished families will have escaped the poverty trap thanks to an increased average income, and the average Aborlan individual will be more content and feel greater community solidarity and local pride. 

The transition process from a simple to a multi-sourced food system is a long-term process (years), not easy to absorb (habits at the personal level and culturally at the community level), and, therefore, the education element will play a fundamental role in the compliance and engagement with the changes by the community. The process will include a wide range of sub-processes; i.e. shift in tradition and cultural norms (e.g. destructive fishing is not only illegal, but also non-legitimate, and in the long-run also does more harm than good), acceptance of new food types (e.g. Spirulina is not very tasty, but adding it to rice makes it a nutritious and healthy dish and it is an acquired taste), capacity-building of new food production technologies (e.g. notably IMTA, sea-cucumber and sea-urchin farming), and the rationale behind compliance with the old and new environmental policies to prevent pollution and other environmentally-harmful practices.  

Specifically, the subprocesses are addressed and spearheaded by the earlier- mentioned three applicable principles.  

First, improving the health of the coastal environment (i.e. the land, groundwater, coastal waters, the reefs, and other ecosystems). Improving the environment is crucial for achieving a better quality of food and drinking water. Improving the health of the environment through the removal, or alleviation, of common stressors is the basis for any healthy ecosystem-based food system. Most of the solutions needed to tackle the local environmental challenges are already available and our team has the knowledge to apply them. These include rain harvesting and groundwater recharge, sewage treatment by constructed wetlands (see figure and attachment materials), monitoring and control of fertilizer usage by EcoFertil system (see attachment materials), and reforestation of sensitive areas. 

Second, the ecological restoration of local coral reefs. Restoration of the reefs will be implemented by various restoration intervention methods, the suitability of which will be determined based on the reef state and target recovery features (e.g. reef structural complexity, live coral cover of reef-building corals, coral and fish recruitment, and fish biomass). Specific restoration goals will include increasing live coral cover, recruitment of fish and coral larvae, and increasing fish assemblages. The restoration tools will comprise integrated approaches to maximize substrate stabilization, enhancing the complexity of the reef structure (through artificial reefs), and coral transplantation (‘coral-reef-gardening’ using coral nurseries for higher survival rates of the coral transplants).  

Third, the expansion of existing, food and livelihood sources and the establishment of new ones. The alternative food production sources are divided into two categories of natural production (artificial reefs, ARs and fish aggregating devices, FADs) and the active production of food (aquaculture). The ARs that will be built during the years 2020 to 2030, together with the FADs, will provide considerable compensation for fish-based food. Adding to this the various land- and sea-based aquaculture initiatives that will begin in 2020, the entire Aborlan community, including the non-fishing villages, will be able to count on the sea for a high- quality nutritious food source. 

The policy in 2050. In 2020 the vast majority of the marine protected areas (MPAs) and sanctuaries of the Philippines (over 1,800) are currently merely “paper reserves” (declared but not respected MPAs), and the marine sanctuaries and MPAs of Aborlan are no exception. In other words, the protection policy is having little effect on the fishermen’s behavior, and the national; and local governments don’t have the budget for effective enforcement. However, the education programs for the children and the public awareness campaigns, together with the creation of alternative livelihoods (the multi-source food system and the eco-tourism activities), will change this unfavorable pattern, and by 2050 the fishermen will be satisfied with their diverse income sources (see figure) and comply with the protection laws and rules, which will be expended to host further responsible tourism (eco-tourism) activities. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Hope to be a partner on growing spirulina as a source of food and to prevent hunger and vitamin deficiency.

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