Editor's note: This is part 1 in a series of dispatches from the Philippines.
The northeast coast of Mindanao island in the Philippines is home to a series of small towns comprised almost completely of fishing families.
Last week, I visited several of the municipalities along with Rare, a US-based group that is working to protect the region’s local fishing livelihoods and help keep the communities out of the poverty spiral that can happen when there’s no more fish, and therefore, no more food.
Rare sponsors conservation fellows in 12 areas in the Philippines. These fellows, who are members of the community, become part of Rare’s two-year program to end destructive and illegal fishing and safeguard the local marine protected area, which is kind of a “fish bank” for the town. In return, the fellows earn a master’s degree from the University of Texas.
These marine protected areas (MPAs) are quite small – 100 acres here, 200 acres there – but they make a huge difference to the communities, which include fishers working from paddle dugout and outrigger canoes with basic hook-and-line or net gear. Before Rare’s campaigns got started last fall, many of the MPAs weren’t really guarded closely and illegal fishing within the boundaries, which are usually marked by buoys or bamboo poles, was difficult to stop. But now Rare’s fellows have been organizing 24/7 enforcement of the MPAs and for the most part, illegal and destructive fishing has been greatly curbed.
Rare’s projects are called Pride Campaigns because they take care to show the towns that they have something special and worth protecting. The MPA guards are all volunteers, with overnight shifts lasting 12 hours or more, and we learned that some of the guards are local fishermen who were once illegally fishing within the MPA before learning the value of protecting it.
In addition to staffing the MPA, the Rare fellows create a mascot for the campaign that’s based on the area’s flagship species, like rabbitfish, lobster or giant clams. These cute anthropomorphized creatures have quickly become the most popular parts of the campaigns. In the little villages of Mindanao, the arrival of the mascots is a major event.
I’ll talk a little more about each fellow that I met in upcoming posts, but I first want to thank Rare for letting me tag along on these site visits. It was really an extraordinary experience.
Editor's note: October is National Seafood Month, and to celebrate, we’ll be featuring a series of blog posts about seafood, sustainable fishing and health. Today we’re schooling you on bottom trawling.
When you’re enjoying a tasty seafood meal, you’re probably not thinking about habitat destruction and accidentally caught marine animals. (Or at least I hope you’re not, it might give you indigestion.) But unfortunately, in many cases, before seafood gets to your plate, those two things may have been part of the equation.
Take bottom trawling, which is the most destructive commercial fishing method on the planet. Bottom trawlers scrape huge, heavy nets across the seafloor, destroying everything in their path. Trawling destroys more seabed habitat each year than the world’s annual loss of tropical rainforest. One study found that trawling destroys 16 pounds of marine animals for every pound of sole brought to markets.
Trawling is designed to catch as many fish as possible, and is used particularly to target shrimp, cod, haddock, flounder, and rockfish. Dredging, which is a similar practice, is used to catch shellfish like scallops and clams. Currently, more than half the fish eaten in the US is the product of trawling.
Fishermen have been trawling for years, but in the 1980s, technological advances allowed them to begin trawling through coral reefs, which they previously had to avoid to protect their fishing gear.
Unfortunately, we know now the huge damage that even one pass of a trawler can cause reefs. In one study in Alaska, as much as two-thirds of some sponges damaged by one pass of a trawler had not recovered a full year later.
Reefs are an important home for fish, so trawling can also ruin fish stocks into the future – even for responsible and recreational fishermen.
Recently, we’ve seen important measures to stop trawling. Earlier this year, a group of North Pacific nations, including the US, agreed to protect more than 16.1 million square miles of seafloor from trawling. Just a month later, Belize banned trawling from its waters.
We’ve made a lot of progress to stop this destructive fishing method. You can help by paying attention to the seafood you buy. Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch site to get their guide to sustainable seafood, also available on paper or your smartphone, and tasty recipes to make with these fish.
After six months of negotiations and with support from Sir Thomas Moore, Oceana bought out the Belize's last two trawlers as part of a government-backed move to ban all forms of trawling in Belizean waters. Belize joins Venezula and Palau as the third country to ban trawling in its waters.
Belize banned trawling back in December and with this final buyout, mid-water and bottom trawling is effectively finished in all Belizean waters, including inland rivers and lagoons.
As part of the buyout, $100,000 is earmarked for micro-loans for local fishermen and $60,000 for disaster relief - and Belize's incredible marine ecosystem is protected! A huge thank you and congratulations to everyone who played a part in this victory!
A huge win out of Belize today: All forms of trawling have been banned in the country's waters. And we’re proud to say that our colleagues in Belize played a crucial role in making it happen.
While there had been a call to ban the destructive fishing gear several years ago, the political will was lacking. But when UNESCO recently threatened to strip the Belize Barrier Reef of its World Heritage Site status, the government took notice. Oceana in Belize collaborated with Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow’s administration to negotiate the buy-out of the two shrimp trawlers.
Shrimp trawls are notorious for the amount of bycatch (untargeted catch) they haul in. Thousands of sea turtles, marine mammals and untargeted fish are caught in shrimp trawlers around the world every year. Meanwhile, bottom trawlers’ weighted nets effectively raze the ocean floor with every pass, destroying sensitive corals and anything else in their way.