The tranquil waters of Libmanan at night are disrupted as a sea patrol pursues an illegal fishing boat. For the volunteer members of the patrol who protect these waters, they are not only conserving a unique marine environment, but also their livelihoods and those of future generations.
For millennia, coastal communities in the Philippines have depended on the sea for sustenance. The coral reefs and mangroves fringing the islands are nurseries for countless species of fish, prawns and crabs.
But these once thriving oceans are emptying. Marine heatwaves due to climate change are killing delicate corals. Most of the country’s main fishing grounds are overfished. Commercial fleets unlawfully poach high-value species. Many fish in damaging ways, using dynamite, cyanide, or fine-mesh nets that scoop up young fish before they have a chance to reproduce.
Not only does this destroy the environment, it also deprives local fishers and coastal communities of their main means of survival.
Patrolling the precious seas
Today, these communities are fighting back. With support from the IFAD-funded FishCORAL Project, they are protecting fisheries while using them sustainably.
At the helm of these efforts are women like Salve Hermina. She chairs Libmanan’s Municipal Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council and leads a bantay dagat group—a volunteer sea patrol that works with partners to enforce fishery law and monitor local fishing activities.
The members of the bantay dagat are at the frontlines of preserving the ocean, but they once used damaging fishing methods themselves. Thanks to FishCORAL, they realised the importance of protecting the fisheries. They were trained in fisheries laws and received essential equipment, such as a watchtower, a well-equipped boat and funding to buy fuel.
Now, the fisheries are once more teeming with fish. Salve is proud of the transformation. “Today, our dream for Libmanan, for the coast, has been achieved,” she says. “There are no more illegal fishing activities here in our municipal waters.”
On nearby Rapu-Rapu Island, Elwin Bulawan’s bantay dagat group is also preventing illegal fishing. “Now that we have a watchtower and hand-held radio, we can report illegal fishing even in places with no mobile phone signal,” says Elwin.
The group regularly accompanies dive teams as they monitor marine biodiversity. Thanks to their oversight, live coral cover in Rapu-Rapu’s fish sanctuary had increased by up to 70 per cent between 2010 and February 2022.
Sustainable and shock-proof solutions
Coastal communities in the Philippines are not only threatened by harmful fishing practices, but they are also highly exposed to natural disasters, like typhoons and volcanic eruptions. FishCORAL helps communities build sustainable livelihoods so they are better able to withstand these shocks.
For Clarita Pabilando, who lives on Samar island, seaweed is a vital commodity. “Seaweed farming has been my family’s source of income for years,” she says. “It has helped us put food on the table and send our children to school.”
The Aqua-based Business School (ABS), set up by FishCORAL, teaches business practices to coastal communities and helps them add value to local products. The school encourages women in particular to become entrepreneurs while using climate-friendly technologies, such as solar dryers to process fish or extreme-weather-proof cages to rear fish.
Now, Clarita and the members of her ABS group make and market tasty, nutritious seaweed noodles—and business is booming. They’ve recently invested in a processing centre and have planted mangroves to protect coastal areas against storm damage.
The FishCORAL Project ended in 2021, having helped over 630,000 people in the Philippines. Over 754 hectares of mangrove areas, 7,515 hectares of seagrass beds, and 9,167 hectares of fish sanctuaries have been rehabilitated. With coastal communities playing a critical part in these developments, progress is sure to continue.