Editor’s note: This is part 3 in a series of dispatches from the Philippines.
Ayoke Island may be the most idyllic place I’ve ever seen. It’s a small island in the northern part of Lanuza Bay covered with a riot of coconut and palm trees.
The town is a small cluster of bamboo and thatch homes. I was lucky enough to get to snorkel in the aqua waters of the Ayoke Island MPA with Lito, a Rare staffer, while fishers held a community meeting in the guardhouse. Unlike the waters of Cortes, which contain mostly an undulating seagrass meadow, Ayoke is home to a stunning reef with ten-foot table corals and seemingly endless clusters of branch corals.
But even in this paradise, there are signs of trouble. We saw very few fish, although I did spot one fat sea cucumber resting on a table coral. I didn’t see any giant clams, although Lito said he saw a dead one. Broken patches of branch corals littering the ground were evidence of dynamite fishing.
Even so, Ayoke Island’s MPA was named one of the Philippines’ top 10 marine protected areas, no small feat in a country with 1,600 MPAs, the most in the world. But as recently as December the community faced a real test when the MPA was dynamited during the town’s fiesta, when no one was volunteering at the guardhouse. No one knew about the bombing until a family that was new to town showed up at the market with several boxes of fish that everyone immediately recognized as the result of dynamite fishing. As fishers told Cherry Ravelo, Rare’s conservation fellow for Ayoke and nearby General Island, they felt like they had been robbed.
If anything, the incident has helped galvanize Cherry’s pride campaign, which started last fall in Ayoke and General Island. I asked some fishers at General Island, a slightly bigger community than Ayoke about a 20 minute boat ride away, how their catches have changed over the years. They told me that before the MPA was established in 2005, they only caught about 1 kilo of fish a day. Now, just a few years later, they catch four kilos of fish a day, enough to keep some to eat and sell some at market.
As we walked the streets of General Island, we were swarmed with kids who were too young to even be in school. The impression that the town was almost wholly comprised of children wasn’t far from the truth. Each woman has five to six children each in this devoutly Catholic community, and the town has grown from 30 houses in 1960 to more than 120 today.
Paul Butler, a founder of Rare who came from his home base in England for these site visits, said that we needed the fish to be as productive as Filipinos. It’s a joke, but it’s also a serious issue for the Philippines, which has seen its population triple since 1970. It goes to the very heart of the issue of saving fisheries to keep these growing communities out of the throes of welfare and poverty, as fish is one of the few natural resources within the grasp of average rural Filipinos.