‘Guardians of the sea’: The fisherfolk of northern Iloilo
ILOILO, Philippines – Fisherman Ricky dela Cruz fixes his boat before the sun sets in northern Iloilo. He is preparing to set sail with his fellow fisherfolk from Barangay Punta Bolocawe in Carles town.
But today, dela Cruz is not sailing to catch fish. He is on duty to guard the seas.
Dela Cruz is the president of the fisherfolk association of Barangay Punta Bolocawe, and one of the 37 “bantay-dagat” (sea guardians) in the village. They guard a 700-hectare marine protected area (MPA) near their coastal village.
“Every 5 pm, 6 of us leave shore to patrol the seas. If we don’t catch any illegal fishers, we can go home at around 8 or 9 pm. Some of our fishermen leave again at midnight to catch fish for our own livelihood,” the 47-year-old said.
He added: “We don’t have any fixed schedule because we’re always on call. Whenever we get calls that illegal fishermen enter our MPA, we automatically mobilize to protect our area.”
According to deal Cruz, the most common illegal fishing method they catch is the use of trolling, a method of fishing where one or more fishing lines are drawn to the water.
“We know that they are fishing in our MPAs because we have markers. We also catch a lot of those who dive at night and use cyanide poison. We see them because they use flashlights under water. We catch a lot of these crooks and bring them to the authorities,” he added.
Illegal fishing in Iloilo
Punta Bolocawe is only one of the many villages in northern Iloilo where illegal fishing is destroying the livelihood of small fisherfolk.
According to Rosana Pandes, community organizer of the Iloilo Caucus of Development NGOs Network (Iloilo CODE), illegal fishing has been plaguing the area for the past decade.
“If you are a small fisherman who only use a pump boat, you really have to go far so you can catch enough fish. It takes them more than 12 hours to catch enough fish, typically from 2 am to 4 pm, because the coral reefs have already been destroyed due to illegal fishing,” Pandes said.
Pandes added that the problem is worsened by the loose implementation of our fishery laws.
“Fisherfolk from other provinces also intrude in our areas. They usually use the excuses that they are not informed that what they’re doing is illegal in this province or that they don’t know that they’re fishing in an MPA,” Pandes noted.
This is why Iloilo CODE came up with a solution to empower the fisherfolk of Iloilo’s northern towns to guard their own seas.
Iloilo CODE helped fisherfolk in different barangays in Carles and surrounding towns create associations so they can better take care of their environment. The organization also helped the communities establish MPAs and artificial reefs. (READ: How solar panels helped Iloilo fishermen recover from Yolanda)
“Once they become part of the community organizations, they automatically become sea guardian volunteers. Then, we facilitate training to orient them about fishery laws so they have the needed background knowledge,” Pandes said.
The artificial reefs was the first project created by the organization to repopulate parts of the sea that were destroyed by illegal fishing. But Pandes said it was not enough.
“We really need community volunteers to protect MPAs in their villages. Without them, we cannot sustain the reefs because illegal fishers would just go back and destroy,” she added.
The implementation is not easy, Pandes admitted, because there were a lot of challenges even from the government side.
“Political affiliation is sometimes a problem. Because when we catch some illegal fishers, they’ll insist that they be given reprieve because they know this politician. It discourages our communities because after all the effort they give, some illegal fishers get to go free because of some local government official,” Pandes lamented.
To add to these problems, Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit Iloilo in 2013.
Rising from Yolanda
Every time the sky grows dark and the wind gives a loud howl, Martin Zambales of Barangay Poblacion in Carles remembers how their house was torn to pieces by the storm surge brought by Yolanda.
“All we were able to do, after we evacuated to a higher ground, was to pray. We saw from afar how our house was torn because it was right by the sea,” Zambales said.
After the storm, Zambales, who is the president of Poblacion’s fisherfolk association, saw the extent of the damage to his village’s livelihood.
“A lot of people were really affected. I thought it would take us years before we can recover because all our boats were destroyed. We’re thankful that some NGOs came and gave us relief and new boats,” Zambales recalled.
Iloilo CODE saw opportunity to expand their bantay-dagat program after Yolanda. With the support of Christian Aid, they donated patrol boats to their partner communities like Punta Bolocawe and Poblacion.
“We saw the opportunity with Christian Aid to expand and replicate this effort to other communities because we saw it had a very positive impact,” Pandes said.
Zambales noted: “We’re really grateful that Iloilo CODE and Christian Aid gave us these boats to patrol the seas again and these artificial reefs to help repopulate the fish. Our lives are back to normal now and we don’t have to go far to catch our fill for the day.”
The efforts of the sea guardians of Carles have proven effective, as dela Cruz says cases of illegal fishing have gone down.
“Daytime illegal fishing have decreased 100% and nighttime illegal fishing by 75%. It’s harder to monitor at night because we only bring 2-way radios when were patrolling so we’re afraid. We just call the police for assistance when there’s an emergency,” dela Cruz said.
For Pandes, the local governments need to do their part in protecting the seas and the communities.
“We need stricter implementation of our laws. We also need to strengthen our partner organizations in the villages because they are the most affected. If they are the most affected, they will be encouraged to guard their areas,” she said.
There is more to be done before the seas of northern Iloilo are secured from illegal fishing but the guardians of Carles will continue to do their part in protecting their sources of livelihood.
“The local government, communities and other organizations need to unite to strengthen those who are most affected. Everyone has to do their share in protecting our seas,” Pandes concluded. – Rappler.com
This is part of a series of stories on Iloilo CODE and Christian Aid's post-Yolanda project "Rebuilding for the Better." From August 9 to 11, a team from the organizations took MovePH to the rehabilitation sites in northern Iloilo to evaluate and document the completion of the project. The rehabilitation project covers 4 themes: renewable energy, shelter, coastal management, and livelihood. Check out the other stories here: