Decades of over-fishing has depleted the once rich marine life of Bantayan Island in Central Philippines. Its' fishermen have become scavengers of the deep, going farther to catch less - a sign of an impoverished marine life and a changing culture.
In early April, I came along with two fishermen from Bantayan Island who invited me to fish for Tayong, or Sea Urchin, on the islands' northern tip of Madridejos. Thirty minutes after leaving the shore, one of the fishermen looks out at the water and signals with his right hand. The engine of the boat is turned off and the anchor is thrown overboard.
“How deep is this water?” I ask. Purkan, one of the two fishermen, explains that the water is six “dupa” deep which is around nine or ten meters. Dupa is the distance calculated by measuring the tip of the fingers from one hand to the other.
He gestures the sign of the Cross with his right hand and dives in the water where he soon disappears as he reaches the bottom.
Fishermen from Bantayan Island travel farther and farther to catch barely enough fish to sustain their families. Commercial fishing has had a significant impact on marine life in the Philippines in the past century. Large trawlers have damaged the coral reefs of the seas surrounding Bantayan Island. These large commercial fishing boats drag heavy nets on the oceans bed in the process destroying the habitat of marine life.
Commercial fishing is also accompanied by other types of damaging fishing methods carried out by small scale fishermen. Among the more prominent types are dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing, and compressor diving. Arguably, these methods arise in competition with said commercial fishing activities.
Previous generations of fishermen recall the abundance of fish when they were growing up. They tell tales of the coral reefs and Bantayan Island's diverse marine life in the 1950's to as early as the 1980's.
Purkan, a 30 year old fishermen originally from neighbouring island Hilutongan, has been living on Bantayan Island for around eight years. Fishermen fish in groups and share pump boats. Purkan has been compressor diving since he moved to Bantayan where his brother in law taught him this high-risk fishing method.
Compressor diving is a relatively new form of fishing where fishermen dive by breathing into a long hose attached to a compressor machine that, quite violently, pushes out air from it’s engine. Compressor diver’s can stay underwater for several hours, diving deep into the ocean, increasing the danger of the bends when going back up.
The bends occur when divers make their way back up to the surface. When this happens to quickly it may result in air pockets forming in the bones which can cause paralysis.
Since 2016, in Madridejos alone, compressor diving has led to at least two casualties and one partial paralysis. Balid, the other fisherman who accompanied us, no longer feels comfortable to do compressor diving. Instead, he watches over the boat and the fishermen underwater.
Compressor diving requires nerves of steel in order to spend hours at a time, in the dark, in the deep oceans.
The increasing scarcity of marine life goes hand in hand with an increasing Filipino diaspora. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), there were 2.4million registered Filipino Overseas Workers (OFW's). This figure does not include Filipino Seafarers who are not categorised as OFW's. This trend applies to Bantayan Island where generally people aim to go overseas to work as seafarers, cleaners, nurses and construction workers seeking to earn in a foreign currency.
In a place like Bantayan Island where, traditionally, fishing was a viable means of living, the current state of fisheries is more than a threat to the local economy. It suggests the fragility of a culture rooted in fishing and it's relationship to the ocean.
Watching Purkan and Balid looking for Tayong, suggests that this process of change has turned them into oceanic scavengers who indiscriminately take whatever survives on the ocean's bed.
End of part 1