One field course we had in school brought us to Bohol, Philippines where we learnt about different environmental challenges faced by locals and different conservation initiatives that had been set up to try to manage resources sustainably. My group and I created a short documentary on the challenges faced by the locals in the setting up and regulation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Bohol.
ENV3102 Group 6 Deliverable
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SNIPPETS FROM MY FIELD DIARY
Tabalong Marine Protected Area (Field Diary: 23rd May 2016)
Today’s visit to Tabalong was particularly eye-opening. This was where we conducted the interview that stood out most to me. We spoke to a fish warden whose main job was to patrol the MPA and look out for illegal fishing activities. He told us that he had taken on this job because he was requested to and needed the money for his family. The job was risky, he admitted, and he felt intimidated by threats from illegal fishermen each time he approached them. After confiding in us that he was the only fish warden to patrol Tabalong’s MPA, he expressed his concern that there is simply not enough enforcement along the reefs.
We were very puzzled. How could the barangay leader think that only one fish warden was enough to secure the area? Was it a lack of funding that prevented them from hiring more wardens? Or was it the high risk in being a warden that had deterred others? The fish warden at Tabalong did not have enough authority to enforce illegal fishing—they are told not to use any form of violence, and to just issue strict warnings and report that activity to the authorities for them to be dealt with by the law. Therefore, illegal fishermen do not feel compelled to closely follow the laws set up by the Marine Protected Area ordinance.
I realized that having effective enforcement can be very challenging—who are we to cut off the fishing grounds of people who depend on it for their own livelihood. Many of the illegal fishermen are not even locals and face their own form of persecution. During our interviews, we found out that a lot of the illegal fishing comes from a group of people known as the sea gypsies or the ‘Bajau’ people. These people were a minority group that believed in animist folk religions along with Islam and were hence marginalized from the dominant Roman Catholic majority in the Philippines. They were traditionally from the islands of the Sulu Archipelago within the Philippines but live in parts of Malaysia and northern Philippines after many conflicts in Mindanao. It is this group of people that are now causing a lot of trouble in the enforcement of Marine Protected Areas because they are often not consulted within the establishment and are not included in the discussion of MPAs. Most of them are illiterate and their main source of livelihood is through fishing. They are associated with most of the destructive fishing practices such as dynamite fishing, drift netting and coral mining. We sensed a little hostility from the local barangay toward these people, but it is vital that we should consider both sides of the story. Would it be possible for us to include this ethnic minority within the community discussions? Or would there be too much hostility between the local Visayans and them?
SCUBA Diving at Balicasag (Field Diary: 25th May 2016)
Diving at Balicasag (Photo credits: Joy Wong)
Although this was not officially a part of the school itinerary, I learnt a lot while preparing for the dive trip at Balicasag. I did some research on which company to dive with and settled for one called Sierra Madre divers, which partners up with some of the local conservation projects such as LAMAVE (Large Marine Vertebrate Project Philippines) to provide them with data about sea turtles, whale sharks and other large marine animals within the region. They also support other conservation groups such as Ocean Quest and Sea Shepherd Philippines for beach clean-ups and coral propagation workshops. The dive shop also sponsors Filipinos with free training so that they can later join the crew as dive guides. What impressed me about the dive guides is that they stressed the importance of taking care of marine life, by reminding us not to touch corals or turtles. It would have been fantastic if we could have participated in these activities, but due to our time constraints it wasn’t possible.
We tried two different dive sites. The first was a reef drop off called ‘Black Forest’ and the second was a reef slope called ‘Turtle Point’. There were so many memorable encounters I experience. A bright lemon frogfish sprawled its fins out across a rock encrusted with pink coralline algae. It stared at us shiftily before slowly lifting one fin up. I saw a hawksbill turtle up close and watched as it paddled away toward the surface.
Within the tranquil ocean, alone with that turtle, it made me appreciate how much freedom there is to be experienced underwater. Things that damage the system down here are usually a result of human actions. Be it pollution or sediment or even diver activity. More so, being underwater resonated with me, my realisation and feelings came with a conclusion: more people need to see this. More people needed to fully immerse themselves in the marine environment, to have a more intimate experience with the world under the surface. Only then will people start to realize the amazing beauty and balance that is maintained here and what is at stake when our daily actions translate into devastating effects for these beautiful creatures.
Some of the marine life I met!
Dive ecotourism might come with its own troubles, however, these issues can be mitigated or even resolved with proper training and regulations. Issues like diver damage can be managed with tour operators ensuring that their clients have certain levels of proficiency. One example is the Sister’s Island Dive Trail in Singapore. While the depth allows all recreational divers to take part, regulations set only allows experienced, advanced divers to take on the deeper, advanced trail. This then helps screen the people who get up and close with the reef and ensure its health. Another method to mitigate diver damage can come in the form of designated landing zones. Buoyancy is something that many novice divers struggle with and the ability to maintain trim is all but unheard of for them. Taking a page out of Malapascua’s handbook, there can be areas set for divers to rest on the bottom of the sea to watch the marine life go past. This way they do not have to land on corals or other life-forms to reduce their footprint underwater.
To quote Baba Dioum: In the end we will conserve only what we love. Conservation begins with a love for what we conserve and only when we truly see the environment that our actions are destroying then we can start to love and save it.