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1Frame4Nature | Jason Houston

Rodel Bolaños with his crab traps on his boat. San Miguel Bay, Philippines.

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iLCP Fellow Jason Houston‘s 1Frame4Nature: In September 2016, as part of an ongoing Collaboration with Rare’s global fisheries program, Fish Forever, I spent almost a month in the San Miguel Bay, Philippines. For three of those weeks I lived with Rodel Bolaños, a life-long fisherman, and his family on Caringo Island.

Ten years ago a trap this size might catch ten crabs. Today one in ten traps might catch a single crab. One day, we returned with just four marketable crabs out of about 75 traps. A good day now might be 20 to 30 crabs. San Miguel Bay, Philippines.
Though Rodel is involved in various programs to improve the sustainability of the fisheries in San Miguel Bay, compromises are still often necesary. Here Rodel buys bait from the by-catch of illegal seine net fisherman on the beach. Mangcamagong, Philippines.

Rodel Bolaños lives on Caringo Island, a small community located in San Miguel Bay, in the eastern central Philippines about an hour off the mainland and completely off­-the-­grid. Just over 1,000 people live on the island in about 250 households, about 90% of which are registered as fishermen. Rodel moved to Caringo with his parents and 6 siblings 30 years ago, when he was 13. They left the mainland looking for a better life and he’s been fishing ever since. Today, Rodel pieces together a living for his family fishing, raising pigs, and running a small shop out of their home selling sundries as well as pig and chicken feed. Rodel is involved in Rare’s Fish Forever initiative to help improve the way the fisheries in San Miguel Bay are managed. Rodel along with others in his community will take the lead in a variety of activities including scientific monitoring and regional policy, setting up protected areas as ‘no­-take’ fish sanctuaries, developing related and alternative markets, patrolling for illegal fishing activities in regional waters, and the registration of fishermen and boats to support future managed access programs.

Rodel’s wife, Ronilita Bolaños, works with the Caringo Island Women’s’ Organization on an enterprising seaweed cultivation project. The seaweed grows just off shore on the north side of the island, suspended on cordage in a grid of buoys connected to stakes. Every few weeks, the women trim and dry the extra growth to be sold for use in a variety of products, ranging from cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to ice cream. The women play a critical role in this fishing community. Not only do they help diversify their families’ incomes in response to the impacts of overfishing, but they have also become leaders alongside the men in fishery management in various ways including helping build the guardhouse for the fish sanctuary and running the patrolling schedule, and managing the ‘lying-in’ holding pens for crabs carrying eggs. Caringo Island, Philippines.
The Bolaños family has a boat, which is more than what most of the fishermen have in Caringo; Only 55 of the 200+ registered fishermen also have boats. The rest serve as crew on other boats or borrow from the several small paddle canoes provided by the local government. With a boat, the fisherman not only takes a larger share and more control over any fishing catch, but he also can run errands to the mainland, collecting fares for passengers and purchasing goods to resell at a premium on the island, which has no commercial service for supplies. Veniflor Bolaños, Rodel’s daughter in-law, and his son, Ian, hitch a ride on the boat as Rodel and crew take crabs to a broker on the mainland. Every three or four days, assuming the catch is good, Rodel Bolaños transports the crabs he’s caught to Noal Cereza, a broker 45 minutes across the bay. The catch usually works out to about ₱1000/day ($21/day), out of which comes expenses, such as fuel and bait, before the remaining funds are split four ways: A quarter to each of the three fishermen and a quarter set aside for the future boat maintenance and repairs. Mambungalon, Philippines.
Rodel Bolaños meticulously handcrafts each crab trap. He precisely measures the lengths of rod for the metal frames, selects the straightest sections of split bamboo for the ribs, and counts off the exact number of knots in the netting as he sews the sheet into a tube he stretches over the frames, artfully tying knots in the cords that hold it all together. It seems overkill for something to be tossed into the sea, sunk in the mud, and beat by the currents, but he says the more careful he is, the longer they last. I suspect it also has something to do with pride in doing it well. He makes about 20 traps in a week, working steadily on the process each afternoon. Caringo Island, Philippines.

Considered the center of global coral ecosystem biodiversity, the Philippines’ waters contain almost ten percent of the world’s coral reefs, large swaths of mangrove forests, and more Marine Protected Areas than any other country. It also sits in the middle of some of the most heavily fished waters in a critically overfished world, making it an important opportunity for understanding the threats and opportunities facing the future of our global fisheries. But it’s about people as well as nature: 91% of the fish caught in the Philippines stays in the Philippines providing 56% of the animal protein consumed by Filipinos. 1.4 million of the 1.6 million fishermen in the Philippines are small-­scale and nearly half the fish caught in the Philippines are caught by these coastal fishermen. Still, in the 60 years between 1940 and 2000, the size of near­shore fishermen’s catch for the same effort has dropped by over 90%.

An hour before sunrise, the Mercedes fish port is already packed. Small boats line the launch ramp while even smaller boats shuttle fish and fishermen from large boats, and buyers crowd around vendors for the first fish of the day. As the sun rises, activities turn from dragging totes of fish up the ramps to hauling everything from bait to batteries to big blocks of ice back down to the boats. But the energetic scene belies the truth. Evidence abounds that we’ve severely overfished this ocean. Fifty years ago, 300 boats, each with 40 crew, would have crowded this port. And each boat had so many fish that fishermen often dumped portions of their catch at the end of the day. Today, their catches are smaller, both in quantity and in fish size, representing how we’re fishing down the food chain and catching younger fish. The larger, industrial boats no longer bring in the tuna or bill fish we used to see and the motley piles of small fish the smaller-scale coastal fishermen display show they’re simply taking whatever they can eek from the ocean. Still, with hope for their future, Mercedes is in the midst of an official 30-year commitment to being “the center of excellence for fisheries in the Bicol Region where God-loving, empowered and healthy citizenry are living in a preserved and protected natural environment with well-planned and functional infrastructure and vibrant economy … where everyone adheres to the principles of sustainable development.” Mercedes, Philippines.

Call to Action: Overfishing, like most conservation concerns, is both a social and environmental issue. Recognizing this complexity and understanding that protecting the planet is about human communities and not just trees and tigers and coral reefs, can help depolarize these historically — and increasingly — divisive discussions. Assume the responsibility to understand these important issues, not just have opinions on them. Then, reach across the aisle and have an intelligent, informed conversation with someone who normally disagrees with you: Commit to finding common ground — in spite of our differences — for the sake of our common future.

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