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Marine Conservation for the Next Generation

Australia’s maritime education helps Filipino marine biologist champion marine conservation in the Philippines

Australia Awards Alumnus Dr. Rene Abesamis remembers the first time he saw the beauty and abundance of life underwater. As a child, he did not expect that a hobby that brought him so much joy would turn into a career as a marine biologist.

Dr. Rene Abesamis first fell in love with marine life when he was a young boy, thanks to National Geographic and films by French marine explorer Jacques Cousteau on TV. At ten years old, his father taught him how to use mask, snorkel and fins, and that was the beginning of his lifelong dedication to marine life conservation.

“My family would spend summer camping on one of the islands in the Hundred Islands National Park. That’s where I saw coral reefs for the very first time, while snorkeling around the island where we’d camp. To this day, I can still remember the wonderful colors, patterns and movements that are the hallmark of a healthy, thriving coral reef,” he said.

Since then, snorkeling has become his pastime. He then pursued biology in college and worked as a marine science research assistant where he trained on scuba diving. Years later, he found himself doing important marine scientific research at the Apo Island, in Dauin, Negros Oriental – an island that is not only rich in marine life, but also a source of livelihood among people living in nearby coastal communities.

The best place to be a marine biologist

He believes that the Philippines is one of the best places to be a marine biologist, being the center of the world’s marine biodiversity. Apo Island, where he conducts is research, is one of the best examples in the world of a successful, well-managed marine protected area (MPA). “I was lucky enough to become part of a long-term and world-renowned research program on the ecological and fisheries effects of the MPA at Apo, which started in the early 1980s,” he said.

Dr. Abesamis had taken his passion further by completing his masters and PhD studies at James Cook University in Australia, one of the most sought-after educational institutions for coral reef ecology.

His research focused on how protecting oceans and designating them as marine-protected areas can restore coral reef biodiversity, and rebuild and sustain fisheries in the Philippines, which have been declining for decades. His two life-long mentors – Philippine national scientist Dr. Angel Alcala, and his former supervisor in Australia, Professor Gary Russ from James Cook University, initiated this research in Apo Island in the 1970s, and motivated him to continue the work that they had started.

With support from international collaborators that included top scientists, Dr. Abesamis successfully led a multidisciplinary research project on the movement patterns of coral reef fishes. This was key in determining the best size, spacing, and location of marine reserves to maximize the benefits of biodiversity conservation and fisheries management.  

The impact of Dr. Abesamis’ work is now being echoed both locally and globally. His published works on marine protected areas have aided his fellow marine scientists, students, and enthusiasts across the globe, and are now being modelled by other experts in the field.

Making a difference

Dr. Abesamis believes that his role as a scientist is to make information easily digestible for everyone – whether experts in the field, decision makers or coastal communities. “Communicating my research findings helps leaders come up with responsible decisions for their natural resources because they understand the repercussions of their actions,” he said.

In 2019, Dr. Rene Abesamis was awarded with the Australian Alumni Excellence in Innovation Award for his contributions to Philippine and global marine science.

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