SLIDESHOW: Communities boost efforts to protect marine life in Mindoro
For the past two decades, sea patrol groups in different villages in Oriental Mindoro have been together with the local government in setting up and guarding marine protected areas (MPAs).
Ronaldo "Torno" Bigyan recalled how rampant illegal fishing "did not only kill the fish but also destroyed the ecosystem," affecting the lives of ordinary fishermen.
Bigyan is a resident of Agsalin village in Gloria town, where a fish sanctuary was established in 2004. Life had been difficult for him, but seeing the urgency of the situation made him volunteer as a sea patroller in 1997.
Thinking about his children's future made Bigyan want to be a sea patroller for as long as he lives: "It would be a shame if our children could only look at fish and corals in books and photographs."
After winning multiple awards, MPAs have became a source of pride for the residents in the seaside towns.
Agsalin was not the only coastal town dealing with the consequences of illegal fishing.
The fishermen of Ilag village in San Teodoro, a town about 100 kilometers away from Agsalin, echo Bigyan's statements.
Born and raised in Ilag is Delmar Canubas, whose family sent him to school with the money they earned from fishing.
"Before the MPA was established, people would catch as many fish as they like," said Canubas, who is the head of the Marine Protected Area Management Council in Ilag.
"It came to a point when fishermen would return with only one to two kilograms of fish after long hours of sailing. Sometimes, they came home empty-handed,” he added.
Looking after the fish sanctuary may be a personal mission for Bigyan, Canubas, and many others in Oriental Mindoro, but their communities are not the only ones who are benefiting from MPAs.
The Philippines ranks first among the countries with the highest risk of facing environmental hazards linked to climate change, according to the INFORM 2019 Global Risk report.
"While MPAs cannot solve climate change, it helps in carbon sequestration," said DENR-SMARTSeas project manager Vincent Hilomen.
"Healthy marine environments can capture a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which makes protecting marine areas all the more important," he stressed.
DENR-SMARTSeas reported that 1.4 percent of Philippine waters are managed by the National Integrated Protected Areas (NIPAS). Seventy-three MPAs cover 3,169,342.4 hectares, while 1,800 locally managed MPAs take up 251,335.815 hectares.
This totals to 3,420,678.2 hectares of marine protected areas in the country.
Apart from mitigating the effects of climate change, well-managed marine ecosystems also support the livelihood of the fisherfolk.
One square kilometer of coral reefs can supply up to 30 tons of edible fish in a year, while the mangroves in the Philippines can produce up to $538 worth of fish per hectare per year.
In Ilag, Canubas said that fishermen are now beginning to appreciate the Punta Ilag Fish Sanctuary.
"Fishermen no longer have to go far away," he said. "They can fish outside the protected area and take home around 5 kilograms of fish in a few hours of sailing."
Considering the sea patrol's role in the upkeep of the MPAs, many of them do not receive an honorarium like Bigyan because they signed up as volunteers.
Bigyan, who started as a volunteer, eventually received an honorarium of P200 per shift after three years of duty. This was later increased to P500.
"To sustain the sea patrollers' efforts, the job must also be sustainable for them," Hilomen said.
In the case of MPAs that were opened to tourists, the sea patrollers can earn from the rentals of kubo, kayaks, boats, and snorkeling gear, as well as guide fees and entrance fees.
In Oriental Mindoro, six protected areas are currently developing biodiversity-friendly enterprises to generate funds that would support the sea patrollers and the local community.
These MPAs include fish sanctuaries in Maasin in Bulalacao, Agsalin in Gloria, Ranzo in Pinamalayan, Ilag in San Teodoro, Harka Piloto in Calapan City, and the Puerto Galera Mangrove Conservation and Ecotourism Area.
The communities are seeing ecotourism as a means of earning additional income.
But turning protected areas into tourist destinations "may cause harm as poor management of tourists can be destructive," according to Diana Prado, who recently earned her master's degree in environmental management at Kyoto University in Japan.
She explained that going over the carrying capacity or the number of tourists a place can accommodate "can disturb its inhabitants and cause irreparable damage" to its natural or man-made features.
On the other hand, Prado agreed that opening a protected area to tourists can be good for income generation and education. She said it can help fund conservation efforts of the place, as well as provide jobs for the locals.
"Immersing tourists in such environments can also educate them about the threats to these areas and what they can do to help," she added.
Prado stressed that a "good balance" of the number of tourists and properly designed and implemented guidelines can be beneficial to protected areas.
A boat carrying boxes of supplies arrive at Maasin, Oriental Mindoro. Since the marine protected area was established, the community is looking into developing biodiversity-friendly enterprises on the island to help sustain marine conservation efforts. Bernice Beltran for ABS-CBN News
A fisherman untangles his fishing line outside his home in Maasin, Oriental Mindoro. Bernice Beltran for ABS-CBN News
Sea patrollers take visitors around Harka Piloto, an island less than 10 minutes away from Calapan City. Harka Piloto has been identified as one of the potential biodiversity-friendly ecotourism destinations in Oriental Mindoro. Bernice Beltran for ABS-CBN News
Cottages are available for rent in Agsalin Fish Sanctuary. Sea patrollers also earn from the rentals of cottages, kayaks, boats, and snorkeling gear, as well as guide fees and entrance fees. Bernice Beltran for ABS-CBN News
A bantay dagat cleans up the stockroom where snorkeling gear, paddles, life vests, and chairs are stored. Bernice Beltran for ABS-CBN News
Melita Calano works as a sea patroller in the Puerto Galera Mangrove Conservation and Ecotourism Area. She said that besides looking after the park, she also entertains tourists. Bernice Beltran for ABS-CBN News
Sea patrollers bond during their downtime. Eleanor Nasino, the president of the sea patrollers, said the women in the team do what their male counterparts do. Apart from keeping the Punta Ilag beach clean, they also set up buoys and guard the sea. Bernice Beltran for ABS-CBN News
Sea patrollers put on life vests before taking tourists to the Punta Ilag Fish Sanctuary. Bernice Beltran for ABS-CBN News
A bantay dagat from Ranzo looks after a visitor who came to snorkel. Bernice Beltran for ABS-CBN News
Besides guarding the fish sanctuary in Agsalin, Bigyan, a sea patroller, also assist tourists who wish to snorkel. Bernice Beltran for ABS-CBN News
A fisher returns to his village holding a big fish he caught outside the Ranzo Fish Sanctuary. The protected area has supplied fish even in the neighboring towns. Every square kilometer of coral reefs can produce up to 30 tons of edible fish. Bernice Beltran for ABS-CBN News
A fisherman dries his fish outside in a field close to his house in Maasin, Oriental Mindoro. Rampant illegal fishing did not only kill the fish but also destroyed the ecosystem, which affected the lives of fishermen. When the fish sanctuaries were established across Oriental Mindoro, the marine ecosystems were able to recover. Bernice Beltran for ABS-CBN News
Apart from various species of fish, birds can also be seen at the protected area in Harka Piloto, an island near Calapan City. Bernice Beltran for ABS-CBN News
A man takes his boat outside the protected area. The fish sanctuary in Punta Ilag supplies fish to the community and neighboring barangays. Bernice Beltran for ABS-CBN News