Rare Catch

Ghio Ong, Helen Flores (The Philippine Star) - August 15, 2015 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines - “We don’t just teach  them how to fish, we teach them to have fish forever.”  This, according to Don Sucalit, is the goal of Rare, an international non-profit organization engaged in marine conservation that involves fisherfolk in the effort.

Sucalit, who is senior director of Rare-Philippines, says the organization’s strategy is to place conservation in the hands of local communities whose livelihood largely depend on fishing to ensure continuity of the program.

He laments that despite efforts to introduce sustainable fisheries management in the past decades, there is continued difficulty in halting illegal fishing in the Philippines, which has greatly contributed to the massive depletion of fish stocks in the country.

 “From my own travels to our sites, I can say that the state of our fisheries in general is there is really a big problem of overfishing as a result of illegal fishing practices, such as dynamite and cyanide fishing,” Sucalit says.

Citing a local study conducted in 2003, Sucalit says a small-scale fisherman who used to catch more than 40 kilos of fish per day can now expect to catch just three kilos with the same amount of effort.

Aside from dynamite or blast fishing, another problem facing the fisheries sector is the rampant use of inappropriate fishing gear, which destroy the natural habitat of the fishes, he says.

To address this, Rare-Philippines, in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sustainable Fisheries Group at the University of California, Santa Barbara, launched late last year the Fish Forever project, which was aimed at mobilizing communities to take an active part in the conservation efforts.

Rare currently works with 20 local government units in protecting the marine protected areas (MPAs). Sucalit notes that 41 percent of the country’s fisherfolk live below the poverty line.

The partner-LGUs include Masinloc, Zambales; Looc, Occidental Mindoro; Lubang, Occidental Mindoro; Gubat, Sorsogon; Mercedes, Camarines Norte; Culasi, Antique; Libertad, Antique; San Carlos, Negros Occidental; Tayasan, Negros Oriental; Manjuyod, Negros Oriental; Dapa, Surigao del Norte; Del Carmen, Surigao del Norte; in Sangay, Camarines Sur; Bindoy, Negros Oriental; Ayungon, Negros Oriental; Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay; Tinambac, Camarines Sur; Inabanga, Bohol; Cantilan, Surigao del Sur; and Cortes, Surigao del Sur.

 “In those marine protected areas, one of the things that we would like to do is strengthen the science of why they would have to establish a reserve or a sanctuary. One of the things we found is that either the marine protected area is too small or it is in the wrong area because that is not actually the breeding area for that species of fish. We’re helping LGUs really beef up technical capacity for protection and also help them strengthen their enforcement capability through the bantay dagat,” Sucalit explains.

 “On the community side – and I think this is where the strength of Rare is – we’re working with communities and mobilizing them to really take an active part in the conservation, the awareness and the knowledge of the community why we need to enforce, why we need to follow the rules, and so on and so forth,” he adds.

One of the most interesting parts of the Fish Forever project is the concept of managed access, where fisherfolk are given the responsibility to protect certain areas and in exchange, they are allowed to fish just outside the sanctuaries where fish is also plentiful.

Managed access is also called Territorial Use Rights for Fishing programs, or TURFs.

 “The managed access site is the site where we will provide an incentive to fisherfolk who protect the marine reserve and that is the area where they could fish. It is really just an adjacent part of the marine reserves where hopefully the bigger fish will move towards and that’s where they would go and fish,” Sucalit says.

The local executives will be the ones to implement the rules of the managed access scheme through municipal ordinances, he says.

 “One of the things we are managing is how to work with the community so that they would actually make the decisions in terms of who can and cannot fish in that area, when can they fish and what types of gear they can use to fish in that area that is non-destructive,” he says.

According to Sucalit, some of their partner-LGUs are in the process of passing ordinances.

Sucalit stresses that educating the community is key in successfully implementing this project.

 “They’ve been used to this kind of fish gear and now you’re teaching them to fish differently. That’s all part of how we’re trying to build community capacity,” he says.

The other interesting component of Fish Forever is marketing, where the organization helps the fisherfolk sell their products.

 “We want to ensure that the fishers do actually benefit in terms of the value of their catch by helping them with market linkages to add value to their catch,” he points out.

Based in Arlington, Virginia, Rare has been working in the Philippines since 2008. Its first project, the “Pride” campaign, helped LGUs encourage behavior change among fisherfolk regarding conservation of Philippine fisheries and marine life.

A strong partnership between Rare and LGUs as well as fisherfolk is critical, as seen in the case of Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, which has been a rich fishing ground until recently when it was blockaded by Chinese vessels.

Masinloc, Zambales Mayor Desiree Edora says local fishermen lost their livelihood because of harassment by Chinese coast guard personnel.

 “They (fishermen) don’t want to return there because they fear for their lives,” she says.

According to her, local fishermen used to harvest three tons of fish from Bajo de Masinloc, earning about P300,000 a week. “Now they only earn P300 a day,” the mayor says.

Edora maintains old maps in possession of the local government show that Bajo de Masinloc, which is some 125 nautical miles off Zambales, is part of the Philippines.

Rare is helping the local community to better manage the town’s four marine sanctuaries located in San Salvador island, Sitio Panglit, Barangay Bani and Barangay Baluganon, she says.

 “It’s a big thing that we were included in Rare’s program to help sustain the daily needs of our fisherfolk, especially those displaced by the standoff,” says Edora.

“If we don’t have these marine sanctuaries maybe we’ll have a bigger problem with our fisherfolk,” she adds.

Aside from Masinloc, Rare’s Fish Forever project was also successfully implemented in the municipalities of Tinambac in Camarines; Bindoy, Negros Oriental; and Cortes, Surigao del Sur.

Tinambac Mayor Ruel Velarde says Rare has helped them encourage their fishermen to report their daily catch to the municipal government so they could effectively monitor overfishing.

Velarde said they are now in the process of crafting an ordinance establishing TURFs.

 “We plan to include this (funding for TURFs) in our coastal resource management development fund in our next budget deliberation,” he says.

Velarde, who is now on his last term, says he wants to make sure that “even without me, without the Rare’s Fish Forever, the program will be sustained and the coastal resource management program in our locality will be continued.”

For Mayor Valente Yap of Bindoy, the support of fisherfolk organizations is the key in sustaining fisheries programs such as Fish Forever.

“We cannot sustain the program unless there is social acceptance,” Yap says.

Cortes Mayor William Angos says they experienced a “dramatic increase” in their fish catch in the past years.

Also, after implementing Rare’s Pride campaign, he says 100 percent of their fisherfolk have already registered their boats.

Rare-Philippines plans to expand its program to more than 100 LGUs in the next five years, Sucalit says.

 “As we plan to scale up and expand Rare’s program in the Philippines, we would like to work alongside these 20 LGUs, specifically with the mayors. We would like them to be our advocates and champions of the program,” says Sucalit.

“There is no better endorsement of our work than if it comes from our partner LGUs itself,” he underscores.

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