Bantay Dagat official sees work as high-risk, high-reward

CEBU, Philippines – Romelito Lirasan tries not to worry about his safety, even if he knows someone who got killed and another one who suffered paralysis most likely because they campaigned against illegal fishermen.

The 49-year-old Bantay Dagat chief of San Remigio, a northern town in Cebu province, admits that while his work often takes him out to sea, he can't even swim. So, on patrols, he always wears a life vest and carries an empty jerrycan he can use as a flotation device, just in case.

"I know God is always watching over me," he said.

Once, while Romelito was on duty as a boat operator, a bullet whizzed past him and hit the engine room. More than once, he has received threats sent to his cell phone. On several patrol trips, he and his crew have survived squalls. 

Instead of focusing on his difficulties, Romelito would rather remember those times when the fishermen in his town thanked the Bantay Dagat for protecting them and for making a bigger catch possible on some days. He'd rather think about the fishermen who give the Bantay Dagat information about commercial fishing boats they've seen encroaching on municipal waters, or about the minority who still use illegal methods

Forty percent of the fines imposed on illegal fishermen is divided among informants in San Remigio. Any fish confiscated from them is distributed to the households of fishermen. Large metal tubs take up a lot of space in Romelito's backyard. He believes these would be filled with fish more often – and commercial fishermen just might venture into San Remigio's waters less – if the police and other concerned agencies would share patrol boats or other resources, and work together more.

There's a lot of work to do. 

Romelito is grateful that most of San Remigio's 1,817 registered fishermen help defend their marine sanctuaries. Fourteen of the town's 27 barangays hug the coast, and most of the fishermen there want an ordinance that will prohibit fishermen from other towns from entering any of San Remigio's 8 sanctuaries.

Five years ago, a fishing boat operator whom Romelito's team intercepted during a joint operation with another town's Bantay Dagat team retaliated by pressing charges against him. He is out on bail, but the harassment and illegal detention case is Romelito's biggest worry. He is thankful that, at last, he became a regular employee of the municipal government in August 2018.

Informed connections

It's a measure of safety in a difficult and high-risk occupation.  

In 2002, a team from the Coastal Resource Management Project observed that the Philippine coastline was "under siege" from different activities that threatened fisheries. About 4 years before that, the Fisheries Code defined the legal and policy framework for protecting coastal resources. But defending a 18,000-kilometer long coastline was (and continues to be) a tough challenge.

Local groups like the Bantay Dagat play a crucial part, and these in turn depend on informed locals like Romelito. But the continuity he has enjoyed as chief of the town's Bantay Dagat for nearly 10 years now is more of the exception than the rule. Experience has taught Romelito that some local politicians own the fishing boats that sometimes encroach on municipal waters, including Tañon Strait.

Unlike Romelito, many local campaigners in coastal resource management lack political connections and job security. His father Albino is a farmer and politician who, as of May 2019, served as a barangay captain. Romelito believes joint operations that involve police and concerned fishermen from several towns work better. 

He remains optimistic there's safety in numbers, although that didn't save his friend Elpidio "Jojo" dela Victoria, the Cebu City Bantay Dagat chief who was shot and killed on Holy Thursday in 2006, in the midst of a campaign to close the Visayan Triangle to commercial fishing operators.

A fisherman who also worked to prevent illegal fishing in San Remigio, Norlan Pagal barely survived a gunshot wound in the spine in 2015. Norlan, who has since won awards from Oceana and other conservation groups, was among Romelito's earliest allies.

Conflicting interests

For nearly 3 decades now, local governments have been empowered by the Local Government Code to declare fish sanctuaries and marine reserves without waiting for national approval. Local authorities can impose fishery license fees and take other measures to protect their municipal waters. The Fisheries Code, in effect since 1998, provides that 15% of all bays, foreshore lands, and fishing grounds may be declared as sanctuaries where no fishing is allowed.

But the awareness and interests of local officials determine whether a coastal resource management plan succeeds or sinks. 

Romelito said one of his challenges used to be finding law enforcers he was sure wouldn't side with illegal fishermen, some of whom happened to be politicians. But he has persisted for 20 years now, reckoned from his first appointment as a patrol boat operator in 1999. He made P75 a day then.

Artisanal fishermen have told him they now catch types of fish that only commercial fishermen could catch before, among them scad (locally known as budboron and tamarong) and moonfish (bilongbilong). Back in 2010 to 2013, most fishermen then told him they were lucky to get 5 to 10 kilos of fish per trip – barely enough to cover the cost of fuel. Now, on most days, they catch more.

By Romelito's estimate, some 20% of the fishermen who work in San Remigio (although not all of them live in the same town) still use illegal methods. Some have told them they merely drifted into the sanctuaries and weren't planning on violating its no-take rule. Some have tried concealing chemicals on the bottom of their rubber boots and walking around in shallow water. The chemicals, the Bantay Dagat officer said, are potent enough to stun fish.

"Some fishermen need new gear or alternative sources of income," Romelito said. Some fishermen are so desperate to catch more that they use 3 layers of nets at once, creating a fine mesh that catches even juvenile fish. Romelito is grateful for the support of groups like Oceana and Rare. "If not for them, law enforcers would operate against illegal fishers less." – Rappler.com

Isolde D. Amante is a writer who lives in Cebu. She thanks Oceana Philippines for the opportunity of meeting some truly inspiring fishermen and community leaders in the Visayas.

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