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Mission Impossible - Protecting our marine environment
By Marit Stinus-Remonde

The Manila Times

23rd December 2003

It is so easy to blame the President, the senators, the congressmen, the mayors and all the other leaders of the country and community for the breakdown of law and order, the destruction of the environment, the depletion of our natural resources, and the demoralization of ordinary people. Sure, the leaders have greater responsibilities because they have greater powers. More is expected from them.

Much is also expected from development workers and members of cause-oriented and progressive organizations. When we question and attack the existing structures of government it is because we see these structures as anti-developmental and victimizing the marginalized and poor. Oops. What is happening in Ormoc City? There so-called progressive organizations are openly and directly encouraging small-scale fishermen engaged in illegal fishing to continue with their illegal activities.

On several occasions when the local fish wardens were able to catch fishermen in the act of using illegal fine-mesh nets, local Bayan Muna and Anak Pawis officials interfered with the result that the fish wardens weren’t able to seize the illegal gear. The police too have been helpless. Where the nets had been impounded—they are illegal based on both R.A. 8550 and the local fisheries’ ordinance—a Bayan Muna lawyer reportedly assured the fishermen, who are organized by Bayan Muna, that their gear would be returned to them without their paying any fine.

Some cases have been filed for illegal fishing. This is sad since the fishermen apprehended are poor. The battle cry of Bayan Muna is that the law, the ordinance, and the apprehension are all anti-poor. The nets being confiscated means that the concerned fishermen can’t go fishing since they have no other nets than the illegal, impounded ones.

According to NGO workers and fisherfolk who are part of the Save Ormoc Bay Aggrupation, the consortium that put up the local Bantay Dagat, gains from strict enforcement of the fisheries laws had been very visible. Species long gone from the bay returned. The small-scale fishermen saw the benefits of their policing of own ranks. They were encouraged.

Alas, the progress came to a stop with the intervention of Bayan Muna. The police aren’t doing anything to help, according to some of the fishermen who have been patrolling the bay. They are very frustrated and discouraged. In October, it came to a tug-of-war between the fish wardens and fishermen using illegal fine mesh nets. The fish wardens and the police decided to let go of the seized, illegal paraphernalia.

Is it anti-poor to enforce the fisheries laws? Are fine-mesh nets pro-poor? Why are the fish wardens only apprehending the small ones? Vessels beyond three tons are not operating in the city waters that are being patrolled by this group. Thus, naturally, it’s hard to catch a big boat when these boats seldom if ever encroach on the city waters.

The positive and very visible impact of the protection of the marine environment indicates that the enforcement of local and national fisheries laws are not anti-poor. When dynamite and fine-mesh fishing was reduced or eliminated, marine life in Ormoc Bay became more abundant and more diversified. This meant bigger fish catch for the local fisherfolk and thus bigger incomes for their families. Unfortunately, it’s now back to square one. The patrolling became scarce with the problems encountered. The fish wardens, dismayed with the lack of support from the police and other law enforcement agencies, were too discouraged to continue patrolling the bay at the same level.

The local fisheries ordinance was only passed this year, but the public, including the fishermen, were informed and educated about its provisions, its purpose, and the penalties that violations carried. Of course, R.A. 8550 has been in effect for a longer time. The fishermen who are being assisted by Bayan Muna and Anak Pawis are aware of the fisheries laws. They know what is legal and what is not. Yet, encouraged by people who are supposed to be more educated, the misguided fishermen insist on continuing their old illegal ways—in the name of poverty. Don’t they know that there will be less and less catch for the existing fishermen (some 4,000 in the area), and much less for their children?

Illegal fishing activities—small-scale and large-scale—are not the only threats to the future of the fishermen and their families. Several industrial facilities are contributing to the degradation of Ormoc Bay by discharging effluents of varying toxicity and volume. The Save Ormoc Bay Aggrupation is talking to these polluters. Preserving Ormoc Bay and its natural resources is a complex task that requires all those who depend on the bay for livelihood, food or profit to unite in saving it.

Bayan Muna and Anak Pawis in Ormoc obviously don’t subscribe to such a vision. Their acts in connection with the enforcement of Ormoc’s fisheries laws, even if the intention is to help those fisherfolk already assisted in the past, are anti-environmental, anti-poor, anti-community, and anti-future. And the inability of the local government to enforce the laws in the face of opposition from these groups is pathetic. But what is saddest is that the fishermen, among the most marginalized in our community, are losing faith in the law and in the sense of ordinary citizens helping enforce it.