Caring for fishing communities
It was my first time almost two years ago to go to Barangay Concepcion, Kabasalan, Zamboanga Sibugay, which is a four-hour commute by bus from Zamboanga City. The purpose of the visit was to gather data for a policy assessment study on commercial fishing within municipal waters. It was on this occasion that a coworker and I had the privilege of personally meeting Roberto “Ka Dodoy” Ballon, a 2021 Ramon Magsaysay awardee recognized for his contributions in preserving the livelihood of his fellow fishers in Kabasalan and the ecosystem they depend on.
Before our interview, Ka Dodoy already sounded accommodating over the phone when I introduced myself and our study. We were met with more hospitality from him and his associates when we arrived in Barangay Concepcion and began to conduct our business. We inquired about the situation of their community and the fishing industry in Zamboanga. In his capacity as Region IX’s Fisherfolk National Representative and chair of the Coalition of Municipal Fisherfolks Association of Zamboanga Sibugay, Ka Dodoy shared his thoughts about the enforcement of ordinances on commercial fishing in municipal waters in Zamboanga City, Zamboanga Sibugay, and the entire peninsula. He lamented that because of the illegal entry of commercial fishers in municipal waters as well as overfishing by both commercial and municipal fishers, marine resources were no longer as abundant as before.
The study found out that 10 years ago in Zamboanga, the fishers could gather a “banyera” or washtub of fish merely a few kilometers from the shore. At present, though, they have to venture as far as 10 kilometers into the sea and still end up catching smaller volumes. Ka Dodoy said it is not cost-efficient for the municipal fishers to fish as far as eight kilometers due to operating costs, particularly on gasoline. A study by the Zamboanga State College of Marine Sciences and Technology (ZSCMST) confirmed the declining catch of small fisherfolk from 10 kilos in an hour’s activity before, to five kilos at best at this time after four to five hours of fishing. It also revealed that less variety of fish and marine resources is being caught.
With less production and variety of fish, the municipal fishers are netting decreased incomes. Ka Dodoy said that income from fishing in Zamboanga could be P12,000 a month, but that got reduced to P3,000-P4,000 when commercial fishers began encroaching into the areas. The ZSCMST study likewise said the estimated average monthly income from fishing ranged from P4,000-P5,000.
The fisherfolk had to engage in rice and vegetable farming as well as nonagricultural activities such as multicab driving in order to augment incomes. But because they are skilled mainly in fishing over other livelihood activities, not a few, whether as boat owners or fish workers, have been compelled to engage in illegal fishing activities such as the use of cyanide, dynamite, and trawl fishing. These activities have taken their toll on the coral reefs and the mangrove areas that fishing families depend on for their livelihood. The changing climatic conditions have further affected the reproduction capacity of the seas.
It is this situation that Ka Dodoy and his fellow fishers have been assiduously trying to change since the ’80s. Their group, called the Kapunungan sa Gamay nga Mangingisda sa Concepcion, transformed abandoned fishponds into a lush mangrove forest and launched livelihood endeavors such as seaweed farming and shell and crab culture, eventually making Kabasalan an ecotourism site. In time, these environmental and economic initiatives brought increased production and income to their families, allowing them to purchase their own boats and send their children to school.
Ka Dodoy and his companions may have been prodded primarily to protect the seas for their families’ survival, but their tireless initiatives demonstrate how caring for one another and for the environment can achieve far-reaching results in the lives of their families and their communities.
Gemma Rita R. Marin is associate director of the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues.
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