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Lessons from the Fisherfolk of Baler, Aurora

21 July, 2023

The Philippines is a country composed of many constituent islands with most of its population residing in the lowland regions by the sea. Because many communities are situated on the coast, many people heavily rely on the ocean for their sustenance and livelihood. Although some communities face degradation of their coastlines due to climate change, pollution, land reclamation, and urbanization, there is vested interest from the local governments and their constituents to conserve and preserve their coastal ecosystems. During one of my trips as a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellow of University of California, Los Angeles, and Central Luzon State University, I received the opportunity to travel Baler, Aurora to learn about the fisherfolk community and culture. Through discussions with local fisherfolk from the older and younger generations of Baler, Aurora I learned about the importance of the fisheries industries in Baler and concerns that fisherfolk are tackling.

The province of Aurora yields 100 metric tons of fish catch per year and is monikered as an up and coming “Tuna Capital” in the Philippines. While municipal fisherfolk utilize gillnets and handlines to catch pelagic fishes such as Albacore Tuna (Thunnus alalunga), Yellowfin (Thunnus albacares), Pacific Blue Marlin (Makaira mazara) on motorized Bangka, a traditional boat of the Philippines, commercial fishing mainly uses gillnets and large fishing vessels to capture large numbers of fish. However, as gillnets are nondiscriminatory with the kinds of fish they land, other animals like sharks may accidentally be caught as bycatch. Fisherfolk also use spearfishing when catching reef fishes but viable reef fish populations, like parrotfishes (Scaridae), have decreased in recent years. In addition to municipal and commercial fishing in Baler and other parts of Aurora, marine and freshwater aquaculture is used to raise the Milkfish (Chanos chanos) and Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), respectively. Additionally, local governments may work alongside indigenous peoples groups whom continue to preserve and employ traditional fishing practices.

Municipal and commercial fishing occurs off the coast of Baler with municipal fishing areas covering waters up to 15 km off the coast and commercial fishing taking place 15km off the coast and farther. Despite this distinct line for the types of fishing distance wise from the shore, conflicts can occur between municipalities. Coupled with the fact that the borders that define municipal waters are relatively unclear, fisherfolk may unknowingly violate municipal fishing ordinances since municipalities may have different sets of rules and regulations for fishing. The province of Aurora has 10 marine protected areas which are areas in the water where fishing and other human activity is prohibited to preserve and conserve the local marine ecosystem. Marine protected areas are not only important in protecting the local ecosystems, but these designated zones also act as source supply for surrounding fish populations.

Despite municipal ordinances and maritime laws, illegal fishing and poor fishing practices continue to take place. A major issue for fisherfolk is the malpractice of overfishing. Overfishing is the overharvesting of a fish population to the point where the population cannot replenish at a fast enough rate to support the fish population. This process leads to a decreased fish population and even eradication of the fish species in the area. Because overfishing leads to lesser and lesser numbers of fish, fisherfolk end up landing fewer and smaller fishes as larger fishes are the first to be sought after. Thus, leading to fewer fish for sustenance and sale in the market.

Although fisheries are a significant sector in the economy and livelihoods of people in Aurora in Baler and in other municipalities, fisherfolk are the poorest sector in the workforce. Fishing can act as a last resort source of income for people in the community as fishing municipal waters is relatively accessible as a permit to fish is all that is needed. A source of difficulty for fisherfolk is the lack of resources and funding available for recovering from climate related disasters. Though local governments allocate some funds towards fisheries, funds are often distributed to select people, missing most of the fisherfolk in the community. This selectivity sours the relationship between fisherfolk and the government to the point where some members would reject subsidized aid due to festered distrust.

The conversations I had with the fisherfolk community of Baler, Aurora shown a light on issues that many fisherfolk face nationwide. I was able to draw similarities between the challenges that fisherfolk from Baler, Aurora and my hometown in Samal, Bataan. As marine conservation scientist, I fervently believe in the importance in listening to the people whom we hope our science aids and offering help to address problems most concerning to communities.

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