CEO Note: In conversation with Gloria Estenzo Ramos, Oceana’s leader in the Philippines, on victories, adapting, and launching an expedition during COVID-19 | Oceana

In the Philippines, Oceana campaigns with and for artisanal fishers who depend on healthy, abundant oceans. Together, we have won protections and policies that reduce illegal fishing, prevent habitat-destroying fishing methods like bottom trawling, and that ultimately help to ensure that fishers can feed their families. In the past six months, COVID-19 has deeply affected Filipinos and their economy.

According to the country’s Department of Health, the Philippines has recorded 6,332 deaths from the virus and confirmed 342,816 cases of infection, as of October 12[1] – the most of any Southeast Asian nation.[2] The country is experiencing its first recession in 29 years[3] and record-high unemployment with 4.6 million Filipinos out of work as of July.[4] As these hardships continue, Oceana’s team in the Philippines has adapted and continued to win victories. Below you will find a conversation I had with Gloria Estenzo Ramos, Oceana’s leader in the Philippines, on our victories and how we effectively campaign amid a global pandemic.

Andrew Sharpless: How important are the oceans for the Philippines?

Gloria Estenzo Ramos: With over 7,600 islands in the country, our ocean means life itself for most Filipinos. Our history, culture, and food preference are centered on the beauty and bounties of our ocean. Fish is the number one source of animal protein in our diets. We are known for our marine wealth, hosting numerous marine endemic species, and are one of the top 12 fish producing countries in the world. But our ocean’s richness has not cascaded into our coastal communities. Our fisherfolk and their families remain among the poorest, despite laws that give them preferential access to fishing grounds.

AS: Oceana recently celebrated our sixth anniversary in the Philippines. Looking back, tell us about important victories in the Philippines.

GER: The protection of Benham Bank and portions of the Philippine Rise stands out as our first great victory in 2018. The creation of science-based, participatory, and decentralized Fisheries Management Areas in 2019 was another important victory for our ocean. This year (2020), we reached an important milestone for our campaign with the signing of the National Sardine Management Plan.

In our campaign to protect Taňon Strait, we showed that with effective implementation of our fisheries laws and constant collaboration among enforcement agencies at the national and local levels, the fisherfolk, civil society, and academia, we can take big steps in securing sustainable and vibrant oceans.

Fighting illegal commercial fishing nationwide is still a major hurdle, but we have been able to reach many milestones, such as making data and enforcement operations transparent and accessible through the online platform, Karagatan Patrol. Created by Oceana and supported by the League of Municipalities of the Philippines, this group provides a platform for law enforcers and citizens to report illegal fishing in municipal waters. Citizens are encouraged to join the campaign to restore Philippine oceans, enforce the ban on commercial fishing vessels inside municipal waters, and defend the livelihood of fisherfolk.

We were also able to ensure accountability for violations of fisheries laws after urging the fisheries bureau to revoke the commercial fishing license of a repeat offender.

AS: We are well-over half a year into a global pandemic. How has COVID-19 affected Filipinos and the abundance of their seas?

GER: The COVID-19 pandemic has been an eye-opener for everyone and has strengthened existing alliances. Key decision-makers have prioritized agriculture, including fisheries. Fisheries sustained many families when the breadwinners working in cities lost their jobs. Oceana has worked with the government to ensure that fisheries continue to receive necessary protections during this tumultuous time so that the country’s more than 1.9 million artisanal fishers can continue to provide for their families.[5]

Oceana persuaded the national Fisheries Bureau to host a virtual meeting for the National Fisheries Management and Resource Council and now it has become an accepted part of all activities in the agency. We were the first NGO to hold online policy discussions with heads of various departments on fisheries management and marine habitat protection, while addressing COVID-related issues such as accessibility of fish to the market and livelihoods. Likewise, we built upon the administration’s post-COVID recovery plan and held a widely participated roundtable with the National Economic Development Authority.

Early on during the pandemic, Oceana used our online platforms to clarify the government’s regulations covering the movement of food and fisheries products during the lockdown. This helped ease the delivery and transport of these commodities. Commercial fishing encroachment in municipal waters has been a long-standing problem for our artisanal fishers, who are granted preferential use of these fishing grounds under the law.  Illegal fishing exacerbates food insecurity and drives overfishing, which can have dire repercussions on our people and oceans. During the pandemic, Karagatan Patrol helped enforcement agencies to continue monitoring apparent illegal commercial fishing in municipal waters and has helped local governments to institute enforcement patrols.

AS: In what ways has Oceana adapted its campaigns in the Philippines amid the coronavirus pandemic?

GER: We advised the Coast Guard on safety measures for fishing during the early days of quarantine. We emphasized the pandemic-driven need to prioritize food security. Together, with our allies inside and outside government, we called for the immediate implementation of the vessel monitoring technology by local authorities. With a new partner, the Philippine Department of Science and Technology, and with the Agriculture Department and Fisheries Bureau, we hosted a very popular software app contest called ‘Karagathon’ to find technology-based solutions to illegal fishing.

We studied satellite images using VIIRS technology and detected a marked increase in apparent illegal fishing in municipal waters during the pandemic. This data reinforced our call for the fisheries bureau to immediately comply with the vessel monitoring requirement.

AS: Oceana is preparing an expedition to Panaon island, one of the most pristine marine habitats in the Philippines.  Why is this expedition important?

GER: We need more marine protected areas to help the ocean mitigate the effects of climate change and to protect biodiversity. Coral reefs are especially important to protect. Panaon’s reefs have coral cover as high as 65%; it’s one of the sites in the 50 Reefs project, an initiative to identify and prioritize those coral reefs around the world that are most likely to survive the harsh impacts of the climate crisis if protected. (The project is partially funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which also supports Oceana). This reef needs protection to sustain not just fisheries but the life and livelihoods of our coastal communities and people. That’s why Oceana is launching an expedition this week – with support from Sobrato Philanthropies – to explore, research, and document the Panaon Island’s marine ecosystem. Our findings will then help inform our campaign to win policies that will sustainably protect such marine resources. We must do so to help secure livelihoods and a source of sustenance, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • [5] 2019 Fisheries Profile. Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.