Sunday, November 20, 2016

Tales from 3 Protected Areas in the Cuyo Group of Islands


Human pressure on marine systems is intensifying, and the establishment of marine sanctuaries is one of the most effective tools for the protection and management of coastal, marine and fishery resources. For most fishing villages that have set aside for protection and conservation a portion of their marine resource, the hope that there will still be plenty of fish for years to come is all the reason they need.

Cuyo Island is home to two municipalities: Cuyo and Magsaysay. In return for commitments to 20161115_115758-01-01protect their resources, Seacology funded projects through the Andres Soriano Foundation (ASF) in three barangays: Barangay San Carlos in the Municipality of Cuyo, and Barangays Rizal and Canipo, both in the Municipality of Magsaysay. No-take zones had been designated and the fisherfolk limit themselves to catching the spillover fish at the periphery.

We visited these sites last week. With me were Lemia Simbulan and Ramil Tabangay, Executive Director and Program Manager respectively of the ASF.


Barangay San Carlos

Barangay San Carlos is situated along the southwestern coast of Cuyo Island. Mostly the villagers make a living from the sea’s bounty. During times when the water is too rough for their boats to navigate, they turn to their farms. The village sought Seacology’s help in the construction of a DSC_0059multipurpose building, in return for which it renewed its commitment to protect, conserve, and manage the 116-hectare no-take-zone of the Imalaguan Fish Sanctuary for at least 25 more years.

The Imalaguan Fish Sanctuary is huge—122,711 hectares. Realistically, Barangay San Carlos can only protect the portion they can see from their shore, and that is what they committed to. I spoke with Fisherfolk Association President Daniel Balcueba before the turnover ceremonies began, and two points stood out from our conversation.

One, the fish caught since the sanctuary was established and enforced has noticeably risen. They saw, too, that it is not just the volume of reef fishes caught at the outskirts that has increased. Pelagic fishes such as Spanish mackerel and sailfish are also coming back.

Two, the fish wardens are becoming busier because intrusions to the sanctuary are becoming more frequent. Fishers from other islands, most notoriously from the island of Antique according to Mr. Balcueba, have been coming in faster boats than what they have. They would give chase but the poaching boatmen would just taunt them before speeding away. Nevertheless the fish wardens still manage to catch the slower ones, which they promptly deliver to the police. Other cases involve ships that drop anchor on the no-take zone. Cellular signal is weak and fleeting so more often than not they are left with no choice but to manage the situation themselves. DSC_0043

In the previous year, there had also been problems with the Badjao folk, nomadic fishers from the Sulu and Celebes seas who live in boat houses on shallow reefs. The fish wardens caught them fishing within the no-take zone and confiscated their boats. Left with nothing, the Badjaos took to begging on the streets. After a few days, the village decided to return their boats to them, with stern warnings not to fish in the protected area again. So far, the Badjaos have not returned.

The turnover ceremony involved a ribbon cutting, speeches, and the signing of turnover documents. Representing the municipal government was Vice Mayor Jake Tan. Essentially, all that ritual is to emphasize to the community that it is up to them to maintain the multipurpose building and live up to the covenant they have made with Seacology.

Since the building was finished in July this year, it has already been used for community meetings and assemblies. We were told that it will be used again the following day as a venue to distribute pensions due to the community’s senior citizens.

DSC_0075After indulging in the food shared by the village, we set off for the beach to view the Imalaguan Fish Sanctuary. Barangay Captain Concepcion Juan mused that much as they would like to protect the whole sanctuary, knowing full well that doing so would only mean a much more bountiful catch for their fisherfolk, they simply do not have the resources to do that. For now they will just have to satisfy themselves with the gifts obtainable from what they can enforce.


Barangay Rizal

We arrived at the multipurpose building in Barangay Rizal about 4:30pm that same day. Barangay DSC_0084Rizal is the largest village within the Municipality of Magsaysay and is situated at the northeastern part of Cuyo Island.

In 2007, the village entered into a covenant with Seacology to preserve 100 hectares of its mangrove area, 75 hectares of which is declared a no-take zone for 20 years in exchange for the construction of the multipurpose building. The whole of Adunbrat Island, which is within the committed area, is all mangrove and comprises the core or protected zone.

Over noodles and rice cakes we got an informal report on the status of the mangrove as well as the multipurpose building. Barangay Councilman Michael Abela reported that for several years now the mangroves have been left alone even by those in adjacent barangays. Mangrove planting has been Adunbrat3incorporated in the school curriculum and periodic tree planting activities are being conducted.

The multipurpose building itself is being maintained very well. The Alternative Learning System sessions conducted by the Department of Education are often held there, as well as the village general assemblies. During times when the roads and walkways are muddy, we were told that the villagers prefer to have their assemblies and meetings outside the building because they do not want to track mud inside.

We left for our lodging for the night, which is near the Port of Cuyo, just before dark.


Barangay Canipo

Despite being a separate island, Barangay Canipo is still within the political jurisdiction of the 20161116_082346Municipality of Magsaysay. This is a poor barangay that is rarely visited by government workers, even from its own municipality, because of logistics and transportation issues. In 2011, Seacology funded the construction of a multipurpose building in support of their commitment to protect a 15-hectare Marine Protected Area (MPA). In return, they pledged to keep protecting the MPA for at least 20 years.

We arrived at about 7:30am the following day and were met by a group of about 20 villagers led by Barangay Captain Sanito Palao, Barangay Councilor Mario Abrina, and Fisherfolk Association President Orlando Lamboloto.

20161116_073335Inside the multipurpose building were two rooms partitioned by movable wooden frames and curtains. It is presently being prepared as a birthing center for a couple of women who are infanticipating. There was solar power for a few lights  thanks to the Solar Energy Foundation, Inc. and a Doppler fetal monitor courtesy of the Zuellig Family Foundation. Certainly there is every indication that it is well-used and well-maintained.

A free-wheeling exchange ensued over a heavy breakfast. I asked about the challenges they have had in enforcing their MPA, and they had plenty of stories to tell.

Like Barangay San Carlos, the Statue of Liberty Maneuver—where one holds a phone high with one hand in the hope of catching that fleeting signal to send or receive a text message—comes instinctively to mobile phone users here. In terms of MPA enforcement, it means there is no such thing as quick support response from the police or coast guard.

The worst incident happened just after the multipurpose building was built. Automatic gun fire tore 20161116_073251the night at 1 am and jolted the villagers out of bed. Barangay Captain Sanito Palao's house was strafed, more likely in frustration than design, by 3 or 4 men who tried to retrieve a confiscated fishing boat used for poaching in the MPA the previous day. Only it was no longer where they thought it would be. The fish wardens carried it inland before day's end, and there were not enough of the gunmen to carry it back into the water. They quickly left after firing their guns, and luckily no one got hurt.

As recent as last November 12 they apprehended a spearfisher. He was 20161116_073039from the nearby island of Alcoba, where they said most of the illegal fishers come from. Other methods of the Alcoba illegal fishers include the use of sodium cyanide and dynamite, though no longer within the Canipo MPA after several confrontations at the start of enforcement.

Interestingly Barangay Canipo, too, was known for harboring illegal fishers in the not too distant past. The ASF’s information and education campaign on the benefits of establishing an MPA and a sensible program of coastal resource management paid off in the form of the fisherfolk’s conversion. Increased yields just beyond the no-take zone have also helped.20161116_072657

Not everyone’s epiphany comes the same way. The local carpenter was once a dynamite fisher. One time the homemade bomb he threw got caught on the mast and landed on his deck. He managed to jump overboard before it exploded. He survived unscathed, but the boat split in two after the blast. His neighbors say that it was this that greatly influenced his change in career.