People often erroneously assume when I talk about what I do that I am a marine biologist.
Nope, social scientist. Surprising, I know, but true. But, what does studying politics, culture, and economics have to do with saving mantas, they ask? From my perspective, everything!
Yep, I work on marine conservation and saving species, but I also work on saving fishers and communities that are trying to live off the oceans sustainably. We need to understand the biology of the creatures, like mantas, we share this earth with, but without also understanding the economic and social systems that has pushed them to the edge of survival we will not be able to change that system and instead find our way to paths that respect the oceans. While my awe at the world we live in is usually inspired by non-human nature, my interest in making that world a better place lies in looking at the relationship of society with nature – understanding how humans are intertwined with their ecosystems both shaping them and reliant on them.
Of course, I have to be science literate to work on fisheries policies and conservation work and, let me tell you, the learning curve for me on fisheries science, modelling, population dynamics and the like has at times been steep in order to get to the point where I can intelligently question government scientists at meetings or fearlessly raise my hand to ask about confidence intervals. Having wonderful scientist colleagues to work with has also been key. I can help them understand the effects of political dynamics on the uptake of their research and they make sure I’m not talking about the wrong species! I believe that it is only through collaboration across fields and expertise that we will be able to make the big changes necessary in the way we fish. So, I’m very excited to be kicking off the ray work in the Philippines with the support of some amazing and dedicated science advisers at The Manta Trust.
It is collaboration that will be the key to the success of the program goals here in the Philippines. I aim to eventually build a comprehensive ‘map’ of everything mobula and manta ray in the country. Easier said than done! And, it will only be achieved through broad networks of support and contribution of data from university, government, and NGO researchers, divers, fishing communities, and concerned citizens.
The Philippines is a fascinating and challenging place to work on fisheries issues. The Philippines has incredibly rich marine ecosystems. There are, famously, 7 101 islands to explore. The amazing diving boasts places to see everything from awesome pelagics to the most incredible macro life. After diving in some of these special places, one may be convinced that this must be what the oceans were once like – teeming with life. Until you start to talk to divers who have been diving here for 30 years or more or to fishers who have lived their life on the ocean and you start to realize that as amazing as the Philippines underwater life still is, it is a mere shadow of its former self. I can only imagine what it once must have been like.
The sad reality is that, like many areas in the world, the oceans in the Philippines are under extreme pressure and are rapidly declining. Finally in 2012, after denying it for years, the government released their data showing that 10 out of 13 major fishing grounds here are overfished.
And, that is where the social science comes in.
Over 1 million people directly rely on fishing for their income in the Philippines and fish is still the main source of protein for the majority in this country of 96 million. However, the fishing sector still remains the ‘poorest of the poor’ with over 40% of fishers seeking a living out below the poverty line. Industrial fishers illegal fish in waters reserved for small scale fishers only leaving too few fish available to for them to make a living or to feed people. The catch of these small scale fishers has gone from an average of 8-10 kgs a day fifteen years ago to only 2kg a day and the number of fishers continues to climb meaning more people chasing ever dwindling supplies of fish. This is one reason why some fishers turn to catching things they would have before left in the water, like manta and mobula rays.
It is absolutely imperative to understand the political system behind this and the realities facing fishing communities if we are to find effective solutions to overfishing of a species here in the Philippines. Hopefully, my experience working with small scale fisheries here in the Philippines and my current day job as fisheries program manager for a national federation of fishers and farmers will help inform successful approaches to mobulid ray conservation through this Manta Trust project.
At this point we are starting our ‘map of everything manta and moblua’ from very little. Only a handful of researchers have looked at the status of rays here and national statistics are very patchy. A very challenging issue working in fisheries in the Philippines is the decentralization of fisheries regulation for small scale fishers. In the 1990s the responsibility for managing fisheries within 15km of shore was given over to municipal level governments with good intentions of managing closer to the resource. Unfortunately, that was never followed up with adequate funding or capacity building for those local governments so monitoring, data collection, and regulating is extremely inconsistent across the country. And from the statistics we do have, it seems that it is ‘municipal fishers’ or those fishing within 15km of shore that are landing the most rays.
So, our approach as well for gathering up a comprehensive data set will necessarily also be decentralized, working place by place slowly building relationships and knowledge through networks dispersed throughout the archipelago. I’ll need all the help I can get to get those networks up and running. So if you’re reading this and you have connections in the Philippines or have photos of rays from dives in the Philippines that we can add to our sighting map, please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org!
Keep an eye out for more updates from the Philippines soon!