Philippines-U.S. Exchange Knowledge in Marine Resource Management

by Megan Moews-Asher
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A school of sardines above a coral reef in Cebu, Philippines (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Megan Moews-Asher).

What makes a successful exchange span from across an agency to across nations? The people! Recently, a group of high-level and expert scientists, managers, policymakers, and law enforcement officials from the Philippines and U.S. came together in a government-to-government peer exchange in Honolulu. They discussed fisheries and marine resource management, science, and enforcement between the two countries.

This effort—supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and several offices within NOAA Fisheries—was a success because of each and every individual (and there were many) who played a part. According to both PIFSC Director Mike Seki and Regional Administrator Mike Tosatto from the Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO), the exchange exceeded their expectations. Administrator Tosatto, Director Seki, and Office of Law Enforcement’s (OLE) Assistant Director Bill Pickering stated that they and many of their staff learned a lot through the exchange and were thankful to all who participated and made it such a success. In addition, Director Seki said that, “it was pretty impressive how it rolled out and that’s only through the engagement [of all parties], so I appreciate that.”

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Group picture of particpants on June 26 (Day 1) of the Peer Exchange, including Philippines Undersecretary for Fisheries and Director of DA-BFAR Eduardo Gongona, Philippines Director of DENR-BMB Mundita Lim, and NOAA PIRO Regional Administrator Mike Tosatto, PIFSC Director Mike Seki, and Office of Law Enforcement Assistant Director Bill Pickering (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

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Sunset at Moalboal, Philippines (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Megan Moews-Asher).

It all started a few years ago with a vision. USAID’s Rebecca Guieb and Dr. Rusty Brainard of NOAA discussed the need for a scientific exchange between fisheries scientists from the Philippines and United States. Over time, the concept evolved into a much broader sharing of expertise and information that brought together the Philippines Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA-BFAR), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB), several NOAA Fisheries offices (PIFSC, PIRO, OLE, and General Counsel), as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, State of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, and other partners.

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Inspection of longline fishing vessel. Tour and discussion led by NOAA Office of Law Enforcement’s Joe Scarpa at Pier 38 (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

In an open and honest sharing of information, participants gave their valuable time as part of the “Ecosystem-based Fisheries Management and Conservation: A Partnership in Governance, Management, Science and Enforcement” Peer Exchange that included what the different countries and agencies are currently doing to manage fisheries and conserve biodiversity, the challenges they face, and some of the key lessons-learned over the years. As stated by DENR-BMB Director Dr. Mundita Lim, “the exchange provided an insight of interconnectivity among disciplines.”

As a result of everyone’s candidness and genuine desire to make the exchange a success, the dialogue led to thoughtful and engaging presentations and discussions, new partnerships, improved collaborations, and future plans. The surprise? On Friday, June 30, the Philippines Undersecretary for Fisheries and DA-BFAR Director Commodore Eduardo Gongona and DENR-BMB Director Lim signed a “Declaration of Commitment and Action Plan for the Management of Shared Resources.” The declaration is an unprecedented effort between their two agencies to increase collaboration in the management and protection of their shared marine resources and ocean ecosystems!

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Declaration signing between the Philippines Director of DENR-BMB Mundita Lim and Philippines Undersecretary for Fisheries and Director of DA-BFAR Eduardo Gongona (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Throughout the exchange, Undersecretary Gongona and Director Lim discussed ways in which their bureaus can work together in the future. It is anticipated that this signing will lead to a memorandum of understanding between the two bureaus in the coming months. This is an exciting prospect for the Philippines, where marine resources are some of the most highly diverse in the world, where vast fisheries and marine resources face a multitude of threats, and of utmost importance, where people depend on these resources for their food security and livelihoods.

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Inspection of longline fishing vessel. Tour and discussion led by NOAA Office of Law Enforcement’s Joe Scarpa at Pier 38 (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Director Seki explained, “many of the Pacific Rim countries have very similar problems.  The sense of food security and conservation is pretty much ubiquitous throughout all of our countries that rely on marine resources and it is on us as scientists and managers to make sure that the resources are there tomorrow.” To add to this, Regional Administrator Tosatto stated, “it really was striking to see how we’re dealing with common problems coming from very different ground truths and yet we’re still solving problems in much the same way, and I think we can help each other.”

Special thanks to ALL involved, but in particular, to DA-BFAR Undersecretary Eduardo Gongona, DENR-BMB Director Mundita Lim, Mike Tosatto, Mike Seki, and Bill Pickering for their time, support and leadership. In addition, to sum up the significance of the exchange and the importance of working together toward sustainability and protection of our fisheries and marine resources, a few words from Bill Pickering, “It’s a trifecta, you have to have all three sides of the triangle [science, management, enforcement] in order to make it work. I don’t think any side is more important than the other because if one of them is missing, whether it be the science, the regulations, or the enforcement part, the whole thing falls apart.” Further addressing the Peer Exchange participants, he stated, “you’re proof of that, from listening to everything you all said.”

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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.