A Fisherman and the Sea

In the northeastern part of the Philippines, lifelong fisherman Rodel Bolaños rises before the sun in Mercedes’ Caringo Island. It is 4:30am as he heads into San Miguel Bay in his sun weathered boat. It’s crab fishing season and the tides wait for no man.

February 21, 2017

For Rodel, being a fisherman is far bigger than a job, it is a part of his proud Filipino cultural identity. The Philippines’ waters contain almost 10% of the world’s coral reefs, vast mangrove forests and more Marine Protected Areas than any other country. It also sits in the middle of some of the most heavily fished seas in a critically overfished world. As such, Rodel and his crew set sail in uncertain times. Bobbing below the surface of the waves, dozens of Rodel’s crab traps sway on a line in wait of crabs, each one built by Rodel’s own craftmanship. 10 years ago, one of his traps may have caught 10 crabs. Now, only one in 10 catches a single crab.

On this day, after 6 or 7 hours, Rodel returns from the sea with only four marketable crabs, an alarmingly low but all too normal occurrence despite the 75 traps he sets and inspects. Though local fishers around Mercedes spend an increasing amount of time out on the water, the fish they bring back are smaller both in size and quantity. “There’s a big difference,” says Jaime Abrerra, who’s been a fisher in Mercedes’ Mambungalon community for 53 years. “When I was 14 years old, if you fished near the shore, you’d catch a lot of fish. Now, you have to go far from the shore to catch fish, and it sadly yields a small harvest.”

Despite long and challenging days at sea, family is the heartbeat of Rodel’s life and he daily returns in the late morning to share a meal with his wife Ronilita and their four children, 19-year-old Ian, 17-year-old Regine, 13-year-old Rabein, and 1-year-old Thali. Warm heaps of rice fill kettles and plates alongside the day’s catch.

For Filipino fishermen like Rodel, fishing and family life are inseparable. The Bolaños family relies on the daily catch he brings home — for both income and food. 91% of the fish caught in the Philippines stays in the country, providing a majority of the animal protein Filipinos consume. A healthy fish population is essential to ongoing food security.

In the afternoon, Rodel takes time to repair existing crab traps and to build new ones. He is a meticulous craftsman. He makes around 20 traps each week, constructing them artfully by hand to make sure they’ll retain whatever crabs can be caught in the bay and withstand the ocean as long as possible. Rodel precisely measures the lengths of rod for the metal frames, selects the straightest sections of split bamboo for the ribs, counts off the exact number of knots in the netting — no step is taken purely out of habit, no piece of the crab trap is picked arbitrarily — every step, for Rodel, means bringing the trap closer to perfection, to optimizing its catch. As he does his careful work, Thali, his youngest, sleeps on a pile of blankets in a hammock fashioned out of the traps’ netting.

Though she doesn’t fish or build traps, Rodel’s wife Ronilita is an equal partner in the effort to sustain fishing as a reliable livelihood for their family. She’s a member of the Women’s Group of Caringo, or Samahan ng Kababihan sa Karingo — SAMAKA, for short.

Ronilita and SAMAKA’s seven other members have all felt the effects of declining fisheries in their households, and have found ways to actively protect ocean habitats and fish stocks, and innovate in sustainable use. These women are reimagining their gender’s role in coastal fishing and its future: they have started seaweed farming to supplement incomes and alleviate fishing pressure and they guard Caringo’s Marine Protected Area from intrusions every day, chasing after and reporting any offenders that try to overfish by taking from protected waters.

“The environment and local ecology is important to us all,” says Susan Aceron, SAMAKA’s president and Caringo’s deputy fish warden for the past seven years — a position typically reserved only for men. The SAMAKA group has truly shifted gender norms. They are now the core of their community’s fisheries enforcement: they built the guardhouse, manage patrolling and documentation and clean up the shore adjacent to the guardhouse. Well aware of how essential compliance is to sustainable fishing, the women take their positions very seriously. “We have encountered people who were angry, angry at us because we’re very strict,” says Susan. “If we catch someone who violates the MPA, we impound all their fishing gear.”

Across San Miguel Bay on mainland Mercedes, Rodel brings his catch from Caringo to a broker, Noal Cereza. From there, Rodel’s crabs will be sold at a fish market, such as the Mercedes fish market further north, a central hub of fishing commerce for the entire municipality.

The Mercedes fish market port is crowded with vendors and buyers. Rodel’s crabs have made it all the way from the calming waters to this bustling site. Just below the romantic and electrifying scene of all the hustle lies a reality less idyllic. Fifty years ago, 300 boats, each with 40 crew, crowded the port. Each boat had so many fish, fishers dumped excess portions of their catch at the end of the day. For those who didn’t live in that time, it’s hard to imagine against today’s stark contrast. Today, their catches are smaller, both in quantity and in fish size. The smaller fish represent how fishers are fishing down the food chain and catching younger fish. Their motley piles of small fish visually demonstrate their constant and ever more urgent search for whatever they can eke out from the ocean.

Local leader Mike Totanes has long been troubled by the fishing crisis he sees impacting so many families, like Rodel’s. He is another key actor in the sustainable fisheries solution. Working in municipal planning and development with Mercedes’ provincial government for years, Mike has gained strong experience with community organizing which he has applied to fishing community outreach. Through this work, he has come to truly understand and gain the trust of local fishers. A brand new Rare Fellow, Mike is being trained in behavioral science and marketing techniques to inspire and guide the fishing communities around Mercedes, like Rodel’s, to adopt sustainable fishing practices.

Mike is one of 45 local leaders in the Philippines who have served as Rare Fellows and who have been able to help communities, through two-to-three year-long projects, put sustainable fishing practices in place. Just across the bay, in Tinambac, another Rare Fellow, Cathy Demesa, ran campaigns with local fishing communities to promote sustainable fishing practices and save the Common Coral Grouper’s declining numbers. Her efforts led to a huge turn-around in illegal fishing practices, and her work was featured in The New York Times and in speeches in conferences around the world.

Like Mike and other local leaders, Caringo Island’s fishers are powerful change-agents as well. Already, many have chosen to sacrifice short-term personal gain to try to build an enduring future for fishers to come. Some new practices they have taken on in support of fish recovery include protecting crabs that are carrying eggs which, if caught, are transferred to holding pens until their eggs drop to aid in the recovery of crab populations.

For the Caringo Island community, and those around it, the challenge facing their communities and future generations is palpable. But so is their commitment to a solution. Through local fishers like Rodel and by training and supporting community leaders like Mike, Rare is partnering to catalyze a global movement of coastal fisheries reform. Far greater than simply a conservation issue, the crisis facing small-scale fisheries is an economic development and social issue, impacting poverty, food security, climate resilience and jobs. The path towards sustainability will not be easy, but it is possible, it is essential and we have solutions. Together, we can turn the tide for communities like Rodel’s.

Images and video by photojournalist Jason Houston