Deep sea divers deep in debt
Cooper Resabal (The Philippine Star) - October 19, 2014 - 12:00am

NOCNOCAN Island, Bohol, Philippines – Defying wind and rain, children romp around the white sand beach leading to this two-hectare village of houses on stilts where mothers tend their homes and men their fighting cocks.

But behind the simple, idyllic life on this island named after nocnoc (shellfish) lies something sinister: For more than two decades, Nocnocan has been a breeding and training ground of boys and men who face danger and abuse to dive and hunt for fish to pay off their debts.

“We need to activate local councils in Bohol against (human) trafficking because the phenomenon looks like it is unnoticed, and involves some hidden arrangement and agreements,” says Carmelita Tecson, officer-in-charge of the Bohol Social Welfare and Development Office (SWDO).

Not too many cases have been filed against traffickers in Tawi-Tawi. Since December 2012, the Bongao Inter-agency Task Force Against Trafficking in Persons has recorded more than 80 cases of trafficked fishermen from Bohol and Cebu rescued and brought back from Tawi-Tawi.

Of this, one case involving two recruiters in Tawi-Tawi was filed July 2013 and is awaiting resolution. In January, another case involving a recruiter was referred to the Zamboanga City Prosecutor’s Office.

Traffickers are often too well connected to law enforcers and others are good at evading authorities, according to the Tawi-Tawi Provincial Police Office’s Women and Children Protection Desk.

In Bohol, not one case has been filed against human traffickers.

For Tecson, the municipal authorities are in a better position to pursue trafficking cases in their areas. “They know (their constituents) are being trafficked. They must take the necessary steps (to protect them),” she says. As head of the secretariat of the Provincial Council Against Human Trafficking, Tecson said she will lobby municipal councils to pursue human trafficking cases here.


Compressor diving, or hunting fish through deep sea diving using an arrow and a hose connected to a compressor, is a unique skill that has for years drawn recruiters from Tawi-Tawi who hire men from Nocnocan to travel all the way to Bongao and Sitangkai, the seaweed capital of Asia and the Venice of the Philippines.

The scheme works this way: The fishermen are hired to be divers and paddlers, or those who stay in the boat to prepare food. The recruiter receives P1,000 for every fisherman he sends off to Tawi-Tawi. The recruits are first brought to Cebu, then to Zamboanga, and finally to Tawi-Tawi.

There are no written agreements with the fishermen’s “employers” in Sitangkai or Bongao. “The agreement was made orally,” Tecson says. The promised salary ranging from P10,000 to P15,000 to work in Tawi-Tawi is usually on a six-month contract. The fishermen are also promised P80 for every kilo of fish they would catch. In reality, they are paid only P5 to P15 a kilo. Fishermen work from 3 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Tecson says every pumpboat in Tawi-Tawi has an armed guard watching the divers who are not allowed to resurface until they have caught some fish. They work even when they are sick. If they grow feverish or want to rest, the guards would fire a warning a shot.

Contact with family members is prohibited and use of cellphones controlled, Tecson adds.

“They were threatened, and lived in slavery conditions,” says Tecson, who gathered the information from interviews with fishermen over the years.

The fishermen, she said, pay for rice and food and in some instances the crude oil for the pumpboats and their own fishing gear. One minor reportedly died in Tawi-Tawi, and another went blind after he was bitten by a dog and received no medical assistance from his employer.

Worse, some fishermen have come home dead due to their lack of knowledge on how to “decompress” when surfacing after diving some 40 meters into the sea.

Apolinario Gaviola, 63, a fisherman from neighboring Hingotanan Island, recalls with mixed emotions the days when he and four other fishermen became part of a fishing enterprise of a Muslim entrepreneur involving deep sea diving in Tawi-Tawi more than a decade ago.

As the fish catch Bohol at the time was dwindling due to tiro or dynamite blasting, Gaviola and the four others joined a sakayan or motorboat on its way to what they imagined was a fishing expedition. It took three days and two nights to reach their destination.

Before departing Bohol, he had gotten a cash advance of P10,000 from the recruiter which he left for his family. He then went deep sea diving to repay the money he had borrowed.

For four months, with fish hunting gear and a flashlight, he says he would “bite the wind” from the end of a tube attached to a compressor before diving into the deep waters of Sitangkai and Bongao. They went diving on moonless nights because it was easier to catch fish.

After paying all his debts, Gaviola decided to return home. But he also had the sad task of bringing the bodies of three companions from nearby islands who died while resurfacing from diving without decompressing.

“I decided not to go back,” Gaviola, 65, now a grandfather, mutters. “I was traumatized.”

Gaviola found an alternative livelihood?planting gozo or seaweeds which he sells for P32 a kilo.

Roel Rico, 48, and his sons Rolen, 25, and Ricky Boy, 27, were recruited from Bohol in August 2013 to work as divers in Tawi-Tawi.

“We were looking for a regular livelihood which we could not find here. Besides, the fish that we get from tanggal (fish trap) had been dwindling,” he says.

His wife Marie says, before her husband and sons left, the recruiter gave her P50,000 as advance, most of which was used to pay debts incurred to raise nine children. Rico and his sons were taken by pumpboat to Pasil, Cebu and then to Tawi-Tawi.

For Rico, the work in Tawi-Tawi is ideal for those who are not “buried in debt.” He knows fishermen who have not been allowed to come home for more than a year now because they still have a debt amounting to P30,000 to P50,000, even more.

The value of the fishermen’s catch is deducted from their cash advances. The fish they catch are salted and sold as dried fish in Pagadian, Zamboanga del Norte and in neighboring provinces.

But on some days, sometimes for as long as 15 days, there’s barely any fish to catch.

Some bosses price the catch of the deep sea divers low, Rico said. So some divers look for other sources of income like diving for giant sea cucumbers and shellfish.

Rico and his sons were sending P4,000 to P7,000 a month. When they got home, he had to be hospitalized for a lung ailment.

“I refuse to let him go back there because it’s all the same. We keep on accumulating debts, and whatever they sent was not even enough to pay for what we advanced,” Marie says.

But her two sons returned to Tawi-Tawi in August. “They want to look for cash, and it is difficult to find that here,” she says, speaking for the 338 families living on Nocnocan. Some 15 fishermen from Nocnocan are still working as deep sea divers in Tawi-Tawi.

Here on this island that posted a monthly household income of as low as P6,000, women do not have proper access to livelihood, apart from selling snacks, salting shellfish and making dried fish. There are no jobs for the youth.

Mired in poverty, the islanders continue to engage in deep sea diving, lured by recruiters despite the risks, said Luciano Meones, the acting barangay chairman.

Pointing at a young boy, he said, “That is Kenken, whose father Julito Pagobo, recently died at the Danajon Reef due to a decompression problem. He left nine children.”

The Talibon local government once provided five fishing boats through a fishermen’s organization called LUPA, of which Meones was a member. Those who availed of this assistance had to pay P10 per day. But this proved unsustainable; payments were irregular.

Meones himself used to go deep sea diving in his younger days using compressors, but has now shifted to an enterprise involving 80 fish traps made of bamboo spread under the deep sea near the reefs. His catch, which on any given day is over 10 kilos, is sold at P40 a kilo.

But not every fisherman is like Meones. To help the fishermen rescued in 2013, Tecson says Bohol Gov. Edgar Chatto gave a financial assistance of P10,000 each “so they can buy fish nets and other gear to start their lives again.”

This story is part of VERA Files’ project “Human Trafficking Casewatch” supported by the U.S. Embassy’s Small Grants Facility and the Embassy of Canada. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.” Photos by Cooper Resabal


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