The Art of the Trap

A day in the life of coastal fisher Rodel Bolaños

January 25, 2017

It’s September, and it’s crab season in Mercedes, Philippines.

43-year-old fisher Rodel Bolaños of Mercedes’ Caringo Island rises and leaves for the beach at 4:30 a.m., pulling a red Nike baseball cap over his head. He heads through the waters of San Miguel Bay toward his crab traps to check for their catch, sharing space on his boat with fellow fishers Edgar Garcia and Santiago Camatoy. Rodel triangulates the traps’ location, based partly on landmarks and other visual cues, and partly on memory.

crab fishing in Mercedes, Philippines
Crab fishing in Mercedes. Photo Credit: Jason Houston

He arrives at each trap, signaled by a bobbing plastic orange ball at the water’s cool, dark green surface. They’re long, rectangular frames wrapped tight with netting, weighed down toward the sandy bottom with an anchor. When he pulls them up from the line by which they’re strung, a crab will sometimes show up inside one, its brilliant colors revealed from under a saltwater sheen. Some are as bright as cornflowers, with purple and blue mixing across their spotted bodies like watercolor paints bleeding together. Others look like crawling neapolitan candies, with shells all pink and brown and white.

Rodel Bolaños pulls up more than 100 crab traps every day. But today, in this bay, a good day may mean bringing back only 20 to 30 crabs total. Ten years ago, a single trap the size of Rodel’s could catch 10 crabs each. Coastal fishers like Rodel are on the front lines of a global swelling resource crisis: the decline and potential collapse of coastal fisheries. To stop the decline and ensure that coastal fishing provides a decent living for people like Rodel and their families, Rare is teaming up with local leaders across the Philippines to empower fishing communities to reconnect with nature and adopt fisheries management solutions that enable its protection.


We believe in these programs and how important they are, as our fishing harvests have really gone down. I like the program because it can really help us fisherfolk maintain the ecological balance and the productivity of our livelihood. I believe in due time, our fish stock will increase with these programs in place.

Rodel Bolaños, Fisherman on Caringo Island


Hot, cooked crabs and heaps of rice make for lunch back at the Bolaños household, a meal for Rodel, his wife Ronilita, and their four children, 19-year-old Ian, 17-year-old Regine, 13-year-old Rabein and 1-year-old Thali. A growing pile of cracked shells and claws forms at the center of the table, as the Bolaños family finishes their food.

It’s the same table where Rodel and Ronilita record the stats from his morning catch. He places each bounded-up crab on a light pink scale, and Ronilita takes down its weight. They lay measuring tape across the length of each crab’s shell, and take that number down as well. Every three to four days, Rodel will transport the catch to Noal Cereza, a broker who lives 45 minutes across the bay in Mambungalon. They usually fetch him about 21 dollars a day, out of which comes fuel and bait expenses, savings for future boat maintenance and repairs, and an equal cut for his boat mates, Edgar and Santiago.

In the afternoon, Rodel works out back on the traps. He makes around 20 traps each week, constructing them by hand to make sure they’ll withstand the rolling ocean for as long as possible. Rodel builds the traps’ frames from metal and wood. He sews long sheets of netting into tubes and stretches them taut over the frames, and cuts and ties knots into yellow cords that hold the parts together.

Rodel handcrafting crab traps alongside his daughter
Rodel handcrafting his crab traps under his daughter Thali’s watchful eye. Photo credit: Jason Houston

His youngest, Thali, runs in a squiggled path around her father’s stacked traps. She’s a bright, bouncing little figure against the netting, in a pink tank with a pink scrunchie in her hair. Rodel will sometimes pause from his task, scoop her up, and dance and croon and talk to her. Once she’s burned up her energy, she falls asleep on a pile of blankets in a hammock fashioned out of the traps’ netting, while Rodel continues his careful work. Before they hit the water, his traps will need to be in top form.

Coastal fishers in the Philippines operate in fisheries rife with unsustainable fishing. Overfishing is the norm: ever-growing demand for fishing brought on by an ever-growing coastal population compels many fishers to try to take as much out of the fishery as they can get. Because all kinds of fishers — small-scale and commercial, local and migratory — often end up fishing within the same grounds under a common policy of open access, it’s hard for local, small-scale fishers like Rodel to find relief from overfishing anywhere on the coast. On top of the overfishing, some fishers also use illegal and destructive methods, like fine mesh nets and dynamite fishing.

Rare is working to help local fishers and their families address the root causes of coastal fisheries decline and adopt sustainable solutions. The organization’s approach is global in reach, but community-driven: Rare empowers communities to redesign management of their coastal fisheries, and take collective responsibility for their protection and restoration. People from local government, NGOs, and other partners on the ground lead Rare Pride campaigns to that end.

This year, local government staffer Mike Totanes is launching a Pride campaign focused on fishing in Caringo Island and wider Mercedes. The campaign aims to advance community adoption of Rare’s core technical solution for sustainable management, called “managed access + marine reserves.” The solution pairs marine reserves with areas of managed fishing access (rather than open access), granting local fishers exclusive rights to designated fishing grounds. Eliminating the free-for-all in the coastal fishery, the approach gives local fishers their own space to fish while incorporating the restorative power of marine reserves to bolster fish populations.

The approach is designed to be adaptable and participatory in its implementation. Rare and the campaign managers work with each community to identify the challenges encountered in local fisheries, as well as their goals for new management. Together, they evaluate existing marine protected areas from which areas of managed access + marine reserves can arise. And as a community begins its work designing and passing the areas into law, Rare is there to support each step, mapping area boundaries and drafting ordinances for legal approval of the approach.

After witnessing how much fishing has changed over the years, Rodel Bolaños is ready for big changes to fishing in San Miguel Bay. “We believe in these programs and how important they are, as our fishing harvests have really gone down,” says Rodel. “I like the program because it can really help us fisherfolk maintain the ecological balance and the productivity of our livelihood. I believe in due time, our fish stock will increase with these programs in place.”