Angel Alcala was born within sight of pristine tropical seas in Cauayan, Negros Occidental, on March 1, 1929.
As a boy, he caught fishes and shrimp with a dip net to help feed the family. He swam regularly at a beach in Barangay Caililing. When he was 10, he swam on a coral reef, close to his home.
I remember him describing to me his memories of Philippine tropical seas in the 1930’s. He spoke of vibrant, colourful coral reefs, teeming with fish and turtles.
Little did he know as a boy that in his life, he would do more, than probably any other Filipino, to preserve these coral reefs for fisheries and conservation, for future generations of Filipinos.
Thus, his calling in life was to study animals.
He did a B.S. Biology (magna cum laude) at Silliman University, Dumaguete City in 1951, an M.A. Biological Sciences at Stanford University, California, USA in 1960, and a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences at Stanford University in 1966.
The legendary herpetologist, Walter Brown, supervised Angel’s PhD.
Angel became the foremost authority on Philippine amphibians and reptiles, an achievement that alone defined him as a world-renowned scientist. He discovered 50 species of frogs and lizards new to science. He published over 115 scientific papers in herpetology. Angel was the recognized expert on Philippine frogs, lizards, snakes and crocodiles.
In 1973, his career shifted direction substantially. Inspired by programs of community-based management of agricultural resources in the Philippines in the 1950s-1970s, Angel decided to try such approaches to manage marine resources, particularly reef fisheries.
He arranged the first meeting on community-based management of marine resources in the Philippines at Sumilon Island in December 1973, 50 years ago.
The meeting was run in such a way that the fishing community themselves felt that they came up with the ideas of a marine management plan, including a municipal legislation to bring the plan into law.
This approach led to a sense of ownership of the management plan by the fishing community, and ownership results in a commitment to succeed.
As part of this management plan at Sumilon, Angel was the first biologist to establish an experimental marine-protected area in the Philippines, aimed at increasing the fish catch of small-scale fishers.
This occurred at a time when reef fisheries resources were declining due to unsustainable fishing practices, and increasing human pressures.
This marine management approach was applied also at Apo Island, and other Visayan islands, and became the template for an extraordinary expansion of MPAs all over the Philippines (1,600 today).
The community-based marine resource management templates at Sumilon and Apo also served as the models for the Local Government Code (1991) and the Fisheries Code (1998), giving co-management responsibility of marine resources to national and municipal governments.
Under these legislations, management of marine resources devolved from a centralized government bureaucracy to municipal governments and local communities. The fishing communities finally had some say in the management of their marine resources.
I believe that this was one of Angel’s greatest achievements. Angel is now recognized as the father of community-based marine resource management globally.
Angel published over 80 papers in marine sciences. His 1981 paper, arising from the 1973 community-based management meeting at Sumilon, was a watershed paper, one of the first attempts in the world to relate MPAs to local fish catch.
He demonstrated that as long as the MPA (25 percent of total reef area) was protected from fishing, fishers had sustainable fish yields outside the MPA (75 percent of total reef area).
His research at Sumilon and Apo showed that no-take MPAs, protected and managed by local communities, can play a key role in restoring biodiversity, and enhancing depleted fisheries.
As a measure of his global impact, I note that on Feb. 5, 2023, the world’s foremost fisheries scientist, Dr. Daniel Pauly, in his keynote address at the International Marine Protected Areas Congress in Vancouver, paid tribute to Angel‘s pioneering research on how MPAs may enhance fishery catches.
Of course, to achieve real-world change, one usually has to step out of the ivory tower of academia.
After a distinguished scientific career at Silliman University, which included establishing the Silliman Marine Laboratory in 1974, Angel entered science management in 1989 as director of the Philippine Council for Aquatic & Marine Research and Development.
However, it was in 1992 that his service in government blossomed. Angel told me that whilst he was on a trip to the USA in 1992, he received a phone call in his hotel room. The caller said, “Sir, the President would like to speak to you”. Angel told me that at first he thought someone was playing a joke on him. However, it was no joke. The President of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, wanted Angel to be the Secretary for the Department of Environment & Natural Resources, a position Angel held from 1992 to 1995.
As Secretary of DENR, he had substantial influence on the passing of the Local Government Code (1991) and Fisheries Code (1998). Angel would remain in government service from 1995 to 1999, serving as the first chairman of the Commission on Higher Education.
Angel Alcala became a National Scientist of the Republic of the Philippines in 2014. This is why we honour him with a state funeral.
On a personal note, I want to express my deepest gratitude to Angel for everything he did for me. He helped define me as a scientist. He was my dear friend and colleague for over 40 years.
In particular, I am so grateful to him and to Silliman University for awarding me a Doctor of Science honoris causa in 2018. I told him it was the highlight of my academic career. He was delighted to hear that.
One cannot honour the scientist and public servant without also honouring the man. Despite his fame and success, Angel remained a humble, approachable person. He always had time to listen and pass on his wisdom.
In addition, he was a loving husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. My condolences to all of Angel’s family, and his countless friends.
We bid farewell to our dear friend and mentor within sight of tropical seas not far from the seas of his childhood. These seas are not so pristine now, but because of Angel’s life, future generations of Filipinos might glimpse what he saw as a child. Future generations will have fish to eat, and have the chance to marvel at coral reefs.
Through my tears, I can smile at the privilege and joy of having known Angel C. Alcala. His extraordinary life-time achievements in science and public service inspired me and so many others, and he will continue to inspire countless people in the future.
Rest in peace, my dear friend.