Editor's note: This is part 2 in a series of dispatches from the Philippines.
One of the biggest challenges facing sustainable fishing in the Philippines is the prevalence of dynamite fishing, where fishers create an improvised bomb out of a rum or Coke bottle and ammonium sulfate. The sound wave created by the explosion stuns the fish, which float to the surface, but it also destroys corals and seagrass meadows that can take years to recover from a single blast.
Dynamite fishing has been a problem in Cortes, a town on the southern half of Lanuza Bay. There’s a lot of pressure to fish here no matter the cost, because the area produces no other local meat or fruit – everything except some coconuts is sold at the market in Tandag, a half-hour drive to the south. As a result, 80 percent of the residents are fishers, and much of the fish they catch is used to feed their families.
This makes Cortes a perfect location for a Rare campaign, and the mayor, Pedro Trinidad Jr., is an enthusiastic participant. Along with Rare conservation fellow Vincent Duenas, the mayor has upped enforcement of the local MPA – one of Cortes’ eight MPAs – with 24/7 volunteer guards. The mayor has even gotten approval to start a landmark program that would require families on welfare assistance to volunteer for shifts in the guardhouse, the first program of its kind in the country.
Vince’s work to educate the town about dynamite and illegal fishing has been so successful that fishermen who were part of the problem have now come around. “Illegal fishermen are now stewards of the sea,” the mayor said as we met over lunch. “Those who were dynamiting the fish are now guarding the MPA.”
Later, we went to visit the guardhouse in Uba, a tiny town of 150 fishing families a short drive from Cortes. Vince’s campaign mascot, a friendly oversize rabbitfish named Rabita, made an appearance – swarmed by children – and we met with a dozen fishers and their wives and daughters in the guardhouse, located on a rocky outcropping just outside town.
After Vince led a conversation with the fishers where they helped design a billboard announcing the MPA rules, I sat down with two of the older fishers in town with Rare’s Fel Cadiz and Lito Mancao to help translate from the local language. The two men remembered catching 20 kilos of fish a day in the 1970s, down to about 1 kilo a day until the area’s eight MPAs were established, starting in 1986. Now they catch about 5 to 7 kilos of fish a day, still down from the peak, but enough to send some to market and keep some to feed their families.
I asked Eleuterio, a 65-year-old father of 12 and grandfather of 27, why he volunteered in the guardhouse. “Even at this age, I still guard so the children will see this is the right thing to do so they will not be illegally fishing too,” he said.