BOMBS AWAY: EX MARINE BATTLES BLAST
FISHING IN PHILIPPINES
Sergeant Armando Pante is no stranger to explosives. The retired Marine Corps Sergeant survived the notorious battle for Camp Abubakar at the height of the Moro Insurgency. In all, Pante spent 21 years in the Philippine Marines, before returning to his native province, Llocos Norte in Luzon Island. “I was ready to live the rest of my days in peace…but fighting is in my blood,” he says. Which is why the formidable Sergeant Pante has turned his attention to a different kind of battle – to protect the seascape off Ilocos Norte from illegal fishers using dynamite and other destructive methods to catch fish…
Thunder under the sea
Dynamite or blast fishing became rampant in the Philippines after the
Second World War. US soldiers would sometimes lob grenades into shoals
of fish, providing local fishing communities with a lucrative new means
of instantly increasing their catches. But it's an incredibly
destructive practice. These days, blast fishermen use powdered Ammonium
Nitrate (usually from fertilizer), kerosene and small pebbles, which are
packed inside a glass bottle andcovered with a blasting cap. New
designs integrate long metal rods which absorb sound and act as sinkers.
The impact underwater is devastating.
A single blast’s shockwave typically travels at about 1500 meters per
second (the length of 15 football fields), killing or maiming every fish
in range and often liquefying their internal organs. The fish are then
collected either by divers using hookah air compressors where an on
board engine pumps air through a garden hose, or using nets. Coral
reefs that may have taken thousands of years to grow, are reduced to
rubble in a matter of seconds, obscured by wafting clouds of silt.
Recovery can take decades, if it's indeed even possible. And then there
is the human cost - Blast
fishing is prohibited in the Philippines, but many Filipino fishers
still use homemade bombs. A 1999 study by Rupert Sievert estimated that
70,000 fishers use the dangerous contraptions. Some fishermen lose limbs and sometimes even the sight in one or both eyes due to bombs exploding prematurely.
Local people making a stand
Fortunately, things are improving. “Better enforcement has proven to be
an effective deterrent for illegal fishers. Enhanced education also
creates a sense of stewardship for coastal communities to more
stringently safeguard their waters,” notes World Wide Fund for Nature
(WWF) Project Manager John Manul. “Who better to protect the ocean than
those who rely on it for food?” Manul oversees a partnership between WWF
and Century Tuna to protect vital fishing grounds in Ilocos Norte.
WWF & BFAR together with government representatives led a training
session for new rangers in Ilocos Norte between 21 and 23 January.
Participants - all from local communities - were brought up to speed on
fisheries laws, gear, practices, apprehension procedures, plus
dynamite-caught fish inspection techniques. “This training will
hopefully curb blast fishing, which still takes place in Badoc, Bacarra,
Currimao and other parts of Ilocos Norte,” said Valente.
All over the Philippines, the battle to save the country's reefs is
underway, as newly trained Bantay Dagat volunteers like those from
IIlocos Norte take to the sea.
“Anyone we catch using dynamite will serve five to ten years in jail,” says new Bantay Dagat
member, Sergeant Pante. The grizzled veteran, plus 19 new fish wardens,
will soon patrol the waters of Ilocos Norte. Pante issued a stern
warning to illegal fishers. “Watch out – because I’ll be watching you.”