While the sun is high on a September day, Rare Fellow Mike Totanes and Associate Fellow Mildred Loyola meet with 30 fishers on the beach in Mambungalon, a village in the Mercedes municipality of the Philippines. The fishers gather in the shade of trees to fend off the heat, finding seats in plastic chairs, on the ground, or against tree trunks to listen to Mike, joined by a couple of curious kids and women from the community. They kick off their flip flops and drink bottled orange soda while he speaks through a mic, calm and assured, about a community fishing program he thinks will be worth their time — called managed access + marine reserves.
The fishers listen closely to Mike’s next words, because they’ve seen the problem that’s crept into their waters in recent years. Though local fishers in Mambungalon and the rest of Mercedes spend more time out on the water, the fish they bring back are smaller both in size and number. “There’s a big difference,” says Jaime Abrerra, who’s been a fisher in Mambungalon 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.”
A lot of commercial fishers are fishing within the municipal waters of Mercedes. They should be outside. Rare’s programs can change things and help support our needs.Joy Lanto, Fisherman in Mambungalon
Today, conservationists work against the crippling power, speed and scale of unsustainable human development and its collateral damage — with climate change and its effects now a part of the issue — to protect both the environment and the human population from the impact of the latter’s own behaviors. On land, deforestation for agriculture wipes out forests and vegetation critical for clean water, while on sea, destructive and illegal fishing practices deplete fisheries and damage habitat like mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs.
Coastal fishers like those operating just off Mambungalon’s shores, however, have little time to dwell on conservation’s big picture. Their focus remains on the daily grind, and the answer to a perpetual question: What do I need to do to keep my family afloat? For Assistant Fellow Mildred Loyola, who grew up in Mercedes, it was intimidating to approach fishers about the issues at first. “Some fishers don’t look at the future the sanctuary could give them,” she says. “I almost cried. But I did not surrender. I befriended them, and their children, and their families. Some part of them knows how interested I am in helping them and establishing their fish sanctuary.”
At Rare, we believe that any truly community-powered solution for fisheries conservation relies on the involvement and feedback of those it’s meant to serve, right from the start. To obtain that level of involvement, conservationists must directly address fishers’ concerns about making a living, and be able to show fishers that they can keep up — and even improve — their livelihoods while participating in conservation.
Folding Livelihoods into Conservation
Currently, over 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are over-exploited (meaning they’re fished at too high a level) or fully-exploited (they’ve been fished to the maximum the population can sustain). Fish catch is declining worldwide, and fishers are left scrambling to catch what’s left, particularly when facing increased demand for fish. Over the next 35 years, food security economists project that seafood supplies for human consumption will need to increase by 70 percent, driven by population growth and economic development.
Solutions for fisheries recovery are emerging in the conservation space, with one prominent strategy looking to marine protected areas (MPAs) as the key to saving fisheries. This strategy involves establishing more and bigger MPAs among fisheries, including no-take reserves where fishing is restricted to allow stocks in the area to repopulate. Expanding MPAs in this way has its big wins: protected areas are critical in helping fish stocks repopulate, and make for long term gains in fishery productivity. Fishers from Mercedes, however, who consider fishing a constant, essential source of livelihood, need more from their conservation strategy. As a fisher sees it, suddenly cutting off his attempts to catch fish in large new portions of local waters will cause his livelihood to suffer in the present.
Rare’s sustainable fishing approach directly addresses these concerns about livelihood, showing local fishers a way they can continue fishing — not more, but smarter. The Rare formula creates zones that integrate managed fishing access with marine reserves (also called sanctuaries). In managed access areas, local fishers like those from Mercedes are granted exclusive fishing access to designated areas of their nearshore waters. While the more common policy of open access renders fisheries vulnerable to overfishing and the encroachment of migratory and commercial fishers, managed access works against these pressures, enabling more sustainable, locally focused use of fisheries.
Joy Lanto, a fisherman in Mambungalon for the past 20 years, supports Rare’s strategy because of this focus on the local coastal fisher. “A lot of commercial fishers are fishing within the municipal waters of Mercedes,” he says. “They should be outside. Rare’s programs can change things and help support our needs. For example, they can help prevent the encroachment of commercial fishers into our municipal waters and create awareness of this issue.” When local fishers adopt a new sense of ownership of managed access areas, there’s also potential for a powerful effect on their conservation mindset: fishers with exclusive access can feel more compelled to enforce the protections of nearby marine reserves, knowing they can benefit from the future spillover of repopulated fish stocks from those same protected waters.
We are soliciting the sentiments of the people, the fishers, and their comments on the design. It’s really exciting to know that most of the fishers are really excited for this new management design, and the techniques for managed access + sanctuaries.Mike Totanes, Rare Fellow, Mercedes
The managed access + marine reserves approach is now in operation in 13 communities around the world, endorsed by each community and relevant legal authorities. Dozens more are on their way, through the work of Rare, its Fellows, and its partners in the Philippines, Mozambique, Indonesia and Brazil. On top of these ongoing efforts in sustainable use, Rare is also pursuing outlets for alternative incomes, which coastal people can pursue to further ensure they make a living while protected waters rebound. This year in the Philippines, for instance, Rare has been part of an exciting pilot for farming sustainable seaweed.
Fishing communities have the power to end unsustainable practices and to recover their fisheries and marine ecosystems, but communities will be slow to join the effort without safeguards for fishing livelihoods. With support from Rare, Mike and Mildred will help Mambungalon and other Mercedes communities adopt a strategy that can allow them to adopt conservation strategies with peace of mind.
Mike’s plan starts with increasing the size of the existing MPA that surrounds Mercedes’ Caringo Island for communities to then integrate managed access. Showing community members his proposal for this half of the sustainable fishing approach, he’s encouraged by their reactions so far. “We are soliciting the sentiments of the people, the fishers,” says Mike. “And their comments on the design. It’s really exciting to know that most of the fishers are really excited for this new management design, and the techniques for managed access + sanctuaries.”