By Suzannah Evans
Ayoke Island is a scrap of island blanketed with a riot of coconut and palm trees in the south of the Philippines. Its shores are guarded by a stunning reef of ten-foot-wide table corals and seemingly endless clusters of maze-like branch corals.
There’s just one problem with this island paradise: There are almost no fish in the coral reef.
The small village of thatch and bamboo homes on Ayoke is comprised almost entirely of subsistence fishing families. But they’re struggling to survive due to a legacy of overfishing and destructive fishing that has caused their catches of anchovy, flying fish, rabbitfish, giant clams and more to drop precipitously. Ayoke Island and its fishermen could stand in for many of the Philippines’ coastal fishing communities. The country contains more than 7,000 tropical islands and has 1.4 million square miles of incredibly productive seas. The Philippine archipelago makes up the northern tip of the Coral Triangle, which contains a third of the world’s coral reefs. And in this nation of islands, it’s no surprise that the Philippines’ culture and history is deeply tied to the sea.
The country is the world’s 15th-largest catcher of fish and the 9th largest consumer, eating two million metric tons of fish a year. Seafood comprises more than half of the animal protein eaten by Filipinos, and fishing provides direct income to 1.3 million small fishers and their families like those on Ayoke Island. These fishers make up much of the Philippines’ poorer communities. Four out of five fishing families in the Philippines live below the poverty threshold.
The Philippines has more marine protected areas by number than any other country: 1,600, mostly established in the last two decades as fish stocks dropped so swiftly that it became impossible to ignore. For decades, the Philippines operated its national waters as de facto open-access fisheries, meaning anyone could take whatever fish they wanted. In 1998, in the face of years of fishing declines, the government passed a fisheries reform law that allowed the local jurisdictions to establish the small no-take zones that have become the country’s signature.
This move empowered the local municipalities, but also meant that the enforcement of the no-take zones was up to the villages. And it means that only a fifth of the Philippines’ 1,600 marine protected areas are meeting their goals.
In Ayoke’s case, the no-take fish sanctuary has seen some success. Before the sanctuary was established six years ago, fishers caught just a couple of pounds of fish a day – not enough to feed their families, which can have half a dozen children in this devoutly Catholic country. Now, Ayoke fishers report catching 10 or more pounds of fish a day.
And they may have even better catches on the horizon, as a U.S.-based group called Rare has begun training programs for local Filipinos to launch campaigns to improve enforcement of the no-take zones, which are overseen entirely by volunteers. But even with better enforcement of the no-take zones, fishers like the ones on Ayoke Island will continue to struggle for one big reason: They alone are not responsible for the declining amounts of fish to be caught in Philippine waters.
The artisanal fishers in dugout canoes must compete against the moneyed, technologically-advanced industrial fishing fleet. Most devastating of all, the industrial fleet is catching the same fish that the local fishers are trying to catch to feed their families. Of the top 10 species caught by the artisanal fishers and the commercial industry in the Philippines, eight are the same. In the 1950s, local fishers caught 70 percent of the Philippines’ total fish catch.
Today, it’s just 46 percent – even though commercial fishing employs a fraction of the number of local fishers. And the numbers don’t tell the whole story. In the Philippines, artisanal fishers are defined as boats that are under three tons. These are the only boats allowed into municipal waters, which are the shallow, reef-filled bays much like Ayoke.
The dugout and outrigger canoes used by the locals in Ayoke fall well within this category, but some commercial operators have found a way to skirt the rules. They’ve developed a large fleet of “mini-trawlers” that are under the three ton limit, but don’t behave in any other way like true local fishers. They’re owned by businessmen who’ve figured out how to exploit the system by hiding in the statistics as municipal fishers.
This allows them to trawl within coastal waters, snatching fish from artisanal fishers who have little recourse. These mini-trawlers are uncounted in the country’s government statistics, and they mean that the true artisanal fishers are even more threatened than the numbers would indicate.
Officially, the number of industrial fishing vessels in the Philippines tripled between 1980 and 2002. According to the FAO, the country’s total fish catch leveled off more than 20 years ago at about 1.65 million tonnes. But those catch statistics may still be total fantasy. During Ferdinand Marcos’ two decades as president, the government reported steady jumps in catch every year, despite fewer and fewer fish actually in the water.
The increasing scarcity of the Philippines’ fish means that seafood is now increasingly priced out of the working man’s grasp. In Cebu, the oldest city in the Philippines and an island-hopping plane ride from Ayoke, the customers at the downtown fish market are primarily tourists from the capital city of Manila because the fish are too expensive for locals to buy. A pound of rabbitfish costs $5 in Cebu. That’s a whole day’s gross earnings for a fisher in Ayoke.
As their backyard fish become more scarce, many of the coastal families, with few other economic opportunities, will have to turn to welfare or other forms of aid or risk going hungry. Fifteen percent of the Philippines’ population is already undernourished. It’s among the top 10 low-income, food-deficit countries. These countries produce a third of the world’s fish, but have three-quarters of the world’s undernourished children.
The Philippines will have to address its out-of-control commercial fishing industry in order to protect its citizens in places like Ayoke and hundreds of other coastal fishing communities. But given their limited resources, the people of these villages – with support from Rare – are improving their chances. No-take zones, even small ones, work well in the Philippines. Like the fishers observed in their own neighborhood sanctuaries, scientists have also confirmed that no-take zones in the Philippines have greater overall biomass, higher biodiversity, and bigger fish than outside the zones.
Good coastal fisheries stewardship, combined with national policies on quotas, habitat and bycatch, can alleviate poverty. A report from the Nature Conservancy and partners in 2008 showed that small no-take zones in the Philippines, Indonesia, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands reduced poverty in five ways: increasing fish catch, creating tourism-related jobs, improving coastal governance, boosting health especially in children, and benefiting women by providing them with economic opportunity through gleaning (shellfish gathering), seaweed farming, and tourism opportunities.
And coupled with a strong national program, places like the coral reef in Ayoke can once again be home to vibrant schools of fish that provide livelihoods and sustenance for the families who call the island home.