Hart Fellow Studies Sustainable Fishing in Philippines

Hart Fellow Brian Wright (PPS ’07) is working with the Institute of Social Order (ISO) in Manila, the Philippines. The country’s oldest NGO, the ISO implements community-based coastal resource management.  Wright is investigating local fishers’ problems and approaches to creating sustainable fisheries. The fishers struggle with poverty, rapid political change, corruption and community division. They often resort to means—such as cyanide fishing—that are both illegal and destructive to the environment.

Wright conducted research in three different communities: one a regular part of ISO’s core program activities, one a recent addition to the program and the third, outside of the program and known as a “lair of illegal fishing,” called Taba-Taba. Below is an excerpt of Wright’s “Letter Home.”  The full text is online at the Hart Fellows Web site, along with Wright’s other letters and slideshows.

Photo by Brian WrightA worker raises the anchor of a sanctuary patrol boat. Along with damage from dynamite, cyanide and bottom-dragging nets, fragile coral reef can be ripped apart by poorly placed anchors.

The name, almost sing-song, had haunted me for the last several months. Taba-Taba. Ta-BA-ta-BA. This one barangay name had become a proxy for my research project and everything that excited and worried me about it.

Taba-Taba is a barangay, the smallest government unit in the Philippines, something like a neighborhood or a small village. In truth, Taba-Taba is little more than a couple of clusters of houses at the end of a long, poorly maintained road. The village has electricity—and therefore TVs—but no plumbing. The road separates the houses from the beach, where a dozen outrigger bangkas are pulled up above the high-water line, their sterns suspended over the sand.

This, I had been told, is the lair of the illegal fishers. Taba-Taba is the problem barangay for ISO’s Camarines Norte program. It is outside of, but adjacent to, our program areas, a thorn in the side of ISO’s efforts to stop unsustainable fishing. For this reason it intrigued me. Taba-Taba presented a problem in need of greater understanding and new ideas.

This is the same reason that Taba-Taba scared me. I had been told that the fishers here were brazen and unrepentant in their criminality. As I was planning a field visit for early January, reports came back of a violent clash between the ISO-sponsored Bantay Dagat (volunteer fish wardens) and Taba-Taba fishers. A boat was rammed, shots had been fired. It seemed that violence was a real possibility, and I agreed to put off visiting Taba-Taba. But, Karen, my research assistant, contacted a cousin with relatives in Taba-Taba and received an invitation from the barangay capitan to do interviews there.

Photo by Brian WrightEnforcers perform an inventory on a seized bangka. Hundreds of feet of plastic tubing were connected to an air compressor, allowing cyanide divers to stay underwater indefinitely.

Later that month, Karen, her cousin and I stood in Taba-Taba. I didn't see any machetes, so that seemed like a good sign. In fact, people were welcoming and even eager to greet me. A good portion of the male residents had gathered. Either our arrival had coincided with some sort of community event, or—just as likely—we were the event.

For the next three days, our home was in the “tree house,” a raised bamboo gazebo about six feet off the ground. It was the de facto town hall for Taba-Taba, situated next to the water pump and in the front yard of our host’s house. Our host—referred to as “the chairman”—appeared to be one of the more prominent members of the community. Because of his work with Mormon missionaries, he and his wife were the only community members who spoke any English.

As our focus group discussion began, it was clear that people were very willing to talk with me. I had planned to delicately approach questions of legality, but no kid gloves were necessary. Without exception, fishers told me that their style of fishing—a hand-operated boat seine they called buli-buli—was illegal. When asked about their greatest concern for their community, the answer was equally clear: the Bantay Dagat. Many described personal confrontations with the Bantay Dagat that resulted in having their nets confiscated or their boats shot at. Many fishers had switched to using regulation-size mesh, and several described the annual practice of creating nurseries for the fish to lay their eggs. This didn’t sound short-sighted or unsustainable. As one fisher said, “the only things the nets destroy are our hands.” Everyone also agreed that whatever their impact might be, far more damage was done by intruding commercial fishers, who operated their trawls and machine-winched nets with virtual impunity.

Photo by Brian WrightOff the coast of San Lorenzo Ruiz, the bank is steeply eroded and littered with trash, and the mud is luminous with the rainbow colors of oil slicks.

Throughout the interviews, fishers spoke of their situation with resignation. Barring legalization or the miraculous creation of alternative sources of income, they saw themselves stuck with the Bantay Dagat. It’s clear that when it comes to coastal management, these fishers have gotten the raw end of the deal. The ISO’s programs are set up to help fisherfolk in two ways. By reducing unsustainable fishing, it should be looking out for their long-term good; with micro-finance, livelihood projects and community organizing, it should be softening the blow of the short-term pain that these changes create. Taba-Taba, though, lies outside of ISO’s official program area. So while it feels the pressure to change from the Bantay Dagat, it enjoys none of the short-term benefits.

I know the people at ISO are deeply committed to making the lives of fishers better and feel that the Bantay Dagat operations are central to that. They struggle to be effective in a world of poverty, resignation and corrupt, feudal politics. They have their biases, but they care deeply and are fighting the good fight. But it certainly doesn’t feel that way for the fishers in Taba-Taba.