May 23, 2022
MANILA – Beneath the shimmering emerald green water of Tañon Strait is a seabed of plastic.
The kids of Mambacayao Island — a fisherfolk community near the Visayan Sea —know this best. After all, their fathers and grandfathers fish in these waters and see their daily haul increasingly include not just of fish but plastic.
Plastic seems to be everywhere in these waters, including inside the bellies of many of the fish that are caught.
So, every Saturday, young men and teeners swim a few kilometers off the shore to collect the garbage underwater that the currents had brought to this marine sanctuary.
The plastic waste that is either entangled in the corals or lying on the seabed is composed of a variety of sachets of consumer products like soap and shampoo, soft drink bottles, and batteries discarded by fishermen who use them in night fishing.
“We’re sweepers of the sea,” said 19-year-old Aldrin Dacomos. “We get everything we can find.”
About 100 kilometers to the south, the fisherfolk of Barili, a coastal municipality of 80,000 in Cebu, are hard at work planting mangroves along the coast. The mangroves, said community leader Ven Carbon, serve as nurseries for fish and a natural barrier against both storm surges and plastic waste that would have washed ashore.
“These have always been our first line of defense,” he said. “As Tañon Strait becomes more and more polluted, this is the least we can do.”
This problem of plastic waste and the more insidious microplastics is not unique to Barili and other coastal communities on both sides of the strait.
A recent study by the Coastal Resources and Ecotourism Research, Development and Extension Center (Crerdec) found traces of microplastics, or plastic debris, in at least nine other sites in the archipelago.
Crerdec, an agency under the Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, launched its study in 2019.
Firms vis-a-vis consumers
With their lifeline under threat, local fishing communities along the strait are leading the charge to preserve one of the largest marine protected areas in the country.
Several studies have identified the Philippines as the third-largest contributor to plastic waste in the world, where over 356,371 metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste originate annually.
In a 2019 study, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives said the country disposes of 163 million plastic sachets and 45.2 million pieces of thin-film plastic bags daily. Most of which were made by global corporations that produce, distribute and sell products packed in small, low-cost, single-use plastic containers.
Most of the time, this plastic garbage doesn’t end up in landfills or waste facilities, but on the shores of fishing communities like Mambacayao Island in northern Cebu and Barili where they are taken by the ocean currents.
Food for garbage
“It’s so unfair that those who are producing, manufacturing single-use plastics are not held accountable, but we would rather blame the behavior of consumers when there are so many impacts that they don’t even know,” said Oceana Philippines vice president and lawyer Gloria Estenzo Ramos.
The Philippines already has several laws in place, like the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2001 and the 1999 Clean Air Act, that should have addressed this problem, she said.
In February this year, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año issued Memorandum Circular No. 2022-018 reminding local governments of their responsibility in establishing environmental safeguards within their jurisdictions because “environmental protection is a devolved service.”
“If they don’t act, it is the constituents who must move, but we make the duty bearers accountable,” Ramos said.
In Mambacayao, the local fisherfolk association has a food-for-garbage program to encourage cleanup.
Every kilo of garbage collected can be exchanged for two kilos of rice provided by the local government or private organizations, according to fisherfolk leader John Ortega.
This program started around 2019, shortly after a typhoon flooded their community. Plastic debris carpeted the shores and the streets, according to 24-year-old Vince Dacomos.
With Ortega in charge, the small community that was once indifferent to plastic waste suddenly began to take interest in the ways this ugly phenomenon would affect them. Then the Mambacayao youth took over.
Ortega said he and members of the private group Goodland Civic Association gave a short seminar on environmental stewardship to the local residents.
“But surprisingly, the kids became very invested in it,” he said.
Starting ’em young
Since then, the kids, some as young as 12 years old, have been attending meetings and workshops on ocean conservation organized by the municipality of Bantayan, which includes Mambacayao.
After completing the workshops, they are officially recognized as managers and fish wardens, and as protected area rangers by the Tañon Strait Protected Seascapes.
At least 20 of them gather on the beach for their Saturday cleanup dive in the waters between Tañon and the Visayan Sea where they collect plastic and other garbage. Most of them can last a full minute underwater without diving gear and they do not need to go deeper than 3.66 meters to find what they are looking for.
Corals, batteries, diapers
What they saw on their first dive shocked them: bleached corals after fishermen dumped chlorine on them, and batteries and baby diapers littering the seafloor.
Most of the corals were also damaged or broken because of dynamite fishing or by reckless divers, said 19-year-old Emman John Jamili.
Some fishermen use chlorine to force fish hiding in the corals to come out, the easier to catch them, he said.
“It’s like they don’t care (about the corals),” Jamili said. “The corals are being suffocated by the garbage.”
The young marine wardens of Mambacayao also try to “rehabilitate” damaged corals by replanting them or repairing broken parts.
In the past two years since they started, some of these corals appear to have been saved as they got back their original colors, said 14-year-old Yverly Dacomos.
Only a few of the kids want to become fishermen like their parents. Like Yverly, most of them want to be a teacher.
But in the meantime, they are actively trying to save the sea because “it’s our source of food,” said Jamili.
“If we don’t save it, we won’t get any more fish … and the next generation might blame us if we don’t do something,” he said.
In Barili, it is the mangroves that the local communities are trying to protect.
Mangrove forests line their shoreline, attracting tourists and becoming some sort of a lifeline for Barili fishermen. Between the roots of the hardy trees are found the nests of sardines, stonefish, galunggong (round scad), and crabs, said Carbon, a fisherfolk leader.
Much of the sea under the jurisdiction of the town is reserved for municipal fisheries, but illegal commercial fishing has been encroaching into these waters and the problem is worsening, according to Carbon.
One commercial fishing vessel could haul in the equivalent of three months’ worth of catch of a small fisherman in just one day, he said.
“That’s truly what’s distressing us these days,” he said. “Now, Barili fishermen are lucky to catch three to five kilos per night which go for P100-P150 per kilo. And with the rising costs of gasoline, that’s just enough to cover the trip itself.”
In his 30 years as a small fisherman, Carbon said he saw their fish catch being depleted because of overfishing. In the past decade, however, plastic waste that choke the mangroves has added to their problem.
Like the kids in Mambacayao, Carbon leads weekend coastal cleanups and mangrove planting. Mangroves take a long time to grow into mighty trees, but they’re particularly vulnerable to strong waves and typhoons as saplings and must be nurtured with care.
These initiatives, said Oxfam Pilipinas ambassador for resilience Antoinette Taus, exemplify the importance of communities finding solutions to their own problems and building their capacity to overcome obstacles.
“At the end of the day, no one can just go to any random place [and] say, ‘Hello, we bring the solutions we think can help you,’” she said. “More than anything, local community actions and the knowledge of people that live there, they are the ones that are protecting their own home, their own community.”
Still, they need all the help they can get. For example, Ortega has been asking the local Municipal Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council for funds to create artificial reefs in areas where the corals had been destroyed. The council has yet to agree to the proposal.
The Barili fishermen also asked a Cebu regional trial court for a temporary environmental protection order this year against resort owners who fenced in parts of the shoreline, including some mangrove forest areas.
“We’ve been taking care of the area for 30 years and now rich people want the gains for themselves,” Ortega said.
(Editor’s Note: This series is written and produced with the support of Oxfam Pilipinas.)