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.