Kamusta! Fish tales from the Philippines

by Max Sudnovsky

1.EAFM_activityDuring the month of April, I had the opportunity to experience the islands of the archipelagic Republic of the Philippines. From upland areas to coastal communities, my adventure took me from the northernmost tip of Luzon Island, across the Visayas Islands, and all the way down to Mindanao. I made more than 100 new friends, stumbled my way through the Ilocano, Tagalog, and Cebuano languages, ate Danggit, Bangus, Turon, and yes, I even sang karaoke. Not only was I able to do all this in three weeks… I was able to do all of this without even leaving my hotel! Wait, how was that possible you ask? Well I’ll tell you.

Over the course of three weeks in April 2016, I was fortunate to be part of a team comprised of staff from the NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP), the Philippines Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA-BFAR) and the Ecosystems Improved for Sustainable Fisheries (ECOFISH) Project of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). At the request of Under Secretary and National Director Atty Asis Perez of DA-BFAR, and with funding from the USAID Philippines, our team worked together to deliver three Essential Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management (E-EAFM) training sessions for 92 BFAR Provincial Fisheries Officers from the 18 administrative regions of the Philippines.

This highly participatory course was designed to introduce provincial fisheries officers to the key principals of EAFM, enhance their ability to work with the Local Government Units in their communities, foster cross-sector coordination, and practice the crucial skills of effective communication, facilitation, and conflict management. The ultimate goal of the course is for BFAR to assist the Local Government Units in improving their existing Integrated Coastal Resource Management plans and build upon existing working relationships through co-management to sustainably manage capture fisheries. Although the course is primarily focused on coastal marine ecosystems, the process of an ecosystem approach to fisheries management can be equally applied to inland ecosystems, offshore ecosystems, or aquaculture systems.

Although the participants came from different geographic regions, many of the conversations focused on the steady decline of fisheries and destruction of the critical habitats. The factors leading to the decline were intertwined and not easily isolated for purposes of management. Nevertheless, the primary issues and conflicts were the same—various kinds of pollution, illegal and destructive fishing practices such as dynamite, air-compressor or “hookah” fishing, and the use of small-mesh fishing nets, overfishing due to an open access fishing regime in the country, a lack of planning and control of development in the shoreline and beach areas, increasing poverty among coastal dwellers, a rapidly growing population, lack of enforcement, and variable political will to address these challenges. A key driving force behind many of these issues stems from a lack of alternative livelihoods that could reduce the dependency of these communities on their natural resources, ultimately threatening the potential for sustainable use.

There are many lessons I am taking away from these three weeks of training. I can’t share them all with you here today although I will share a few. The training sessions were a true manifestation a successful government-to-government partnership. Through the support and forethought of USAID Philippines and Director Asis, the NOAA-BFAR relationship has a strong foundation, one that we look forward to continuing over the long-term as both the Philippines and the United States enter new administrations. At the heart of the EAFM process, one of the key principals is increased participation and stakeholder engagement. During our time together we realized the importance of building, strengthening, and maintaining relationships both at the institutional as well as the personal level. We were able to re-examine the multitude of resources we have available to us as we try and incorporate more holistic considerations into fisheries management by addressing the trade-offs among ecological principals, legal mandates, and the varying interests of coastal communities and stakeholders.

I can also share with you that I have a deep admiration for the participants that I’ve had the pleasure to learn from—those who serve as fisheries managers in the Philippines. It’s a tough and often thankless job. The dedication, commitment, and passion of the participants, as well as the trainers, are truly inspiring.

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I would like to thank the BFAR trainers and provincial fisheries officers for taking me on this adventure to the Tanon Straight Bias Bay, San Miguel Bay, Sogod Bay, the Danajon Double Barrier Reef, Tinagong Dagat, Abba River Basin, Cagayan Valley, Anda, Bolinao, Bani, Alaminos, Tayabas Bay, Masinloc Bay, Babuyan Channel, Carraga, Sorsogon Bay, Sarangani Bay, Kalinga, and last but not least, Basilan. Throughout our time together we shared stories of our experiences, both the failures and success. We shared our hopes and concerns for the environment, the people, and the Philippines. We are hopeful that we can challenge and shift perceptions to make ecosystem-based management feasible.

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