Saving biodiversity at Verde Island Passage

Text: Maricar Cinco – Reporter /Philippine Daily Inquirer 

Photo: Clifford Nunez – Photo Correspondent / Philippine Daily Inquirer 

05:43 AM October 21, 2018

PRIZED CATCH: For decades, aquarium fishing has been a major source of income for families in San Andres, a tightly knit community on Verde Island in Batangas province.

Work peaks every Wednesday for 52-year-old Sandro Pagkaliwagan. As early as 3 a.m., he starts his chores, changing seawater in clear plastic bags thick enough not to tear and pumping oxygen for the live fish inside. He loads the bags onto a boat for transport from Verde Island to Batangas City by noon.

“It’s as if (there’s an occasion) that keeps everyone around busy,” he said.

For aquarium fish traders like Pagkaliwagan, it’s a long—and painstaking—day to ship their harvest safely from Batangas province to Manila, hoping that their week’s catch from diving at risk to reefs at the sea bottom could be sold at pet shops and would bring money to buy food and other things for their families.

The industry, dominated by men, remains the primary, if not the only, source of livelihood in Barangay San Andres, a backward community of 300 families on Verde Island in Batangas. There is hardly any flat land to till or sandy beaches to lure investors.

Verde Island lies in the middle of the Verde Island Passage (VIP), a 1.14 million-hectare strait in the Mindoro-Calavite-Tablas triangle which was declared the “center of the center of marine shore fish biodiversity” by scientists Kent Carpenter and Victor Springer in 2005. Their finding was supported by a 2006 study of the University of the Philippines Visayas Foundation Inc. and the Marine Science Institute showing “high densities of fish eggs and larvae” around it.

Global demand

Though they are aware of the bounty in the surrounding seas, the people of San Andres are at the extreme end of the multimillion-dollar tropical fish industry. They get just a thin slice of the revenue pie from their harvest of clownfish, damselfish, anthias, tomato anemonefish, wrasse, butterflyfish, lionfish, moorish idol, parrotfish and other species.

For one, the clownfish has become the market favorite, its global demand spurred by the 2003 movie “Finding Nemo,” but which the fish collectors sell for only P15 apiece.

Angelfish costs P100 to P120 each; lionfish, P40; wrasses, P20; and fishes of the genus Chromis, the cheapest at P5.

In the United States, online price lists of pet shops show that common species, like angelfish, are each sold for $30 to $50, or P1,620 to P2,700.

“We don’t have a say on the price and we don’t really ask the ‘amo’ (boss.) All we know is that (the fish) must be shipped out by Thursday, Friday, or Saturday,” said Pagkaliwagan, who has mastered the routine from decades of collecting and selling wild reef fish for ornament.

They are, however, not allowed to deliver more than what the wholesaler had ordered for the week as the warehouse could only stock as much. On Verde Island, the fish are usually kept in roughly made concrete storerooms until the following Wednesday.

FRAGILE EXPORT: Fish collectors store their live catch in plastic bags until they are ready for transport to Metro Manila. Ornamental fish gathered from the waters of Verde Island Passage are exported to as far as the United States.

Manila pet shops

Fish collectors and traders earn from P5,000 to P10,000 a month. Traders allow a 10- to 15-percent price markup for wholesalers, who export the fish to retailers in the United States, European countries and Japan.

Manila is speckled with hundreds of wholesalers and pet shops, most of them located near the international airport. But a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) list showed only 21 registered tropical fish exporters, mostly are in Muntinlupa, Las Piñas and Parañaque cities.

Excesses in stock or fish of poor quality end up in the popular pet complex in Pasay City, fish collectors say.

Globally, marine aquarium is a multimillion-dollar trade, with the Philippines among the top export countries. (The UN Environment Programme, or UNEP, in 2003 estimated it at $200 million to $330 million, while the World Wide Fund for Nature-Philippines in 2013 said it could be over $1 billion.)

In 2008, the Philippines exported about $7 million worth of live ornamental fish, 98 percent of which were caught in the wild, according to a 2010 report by the Globefish Research Programme.

“Trade in marine fish or any marine product is often called a cutflower industry. When it dies or (in the case of a flower) withers, you just buy a new one. And usually, nothing (fish) survives that long in captivity—probably just weeks or months unlike when they are in the wild,” said Emerson Sy of the Philippine Center for Terrestrial and Aquatic Research.

Sy also described aquarium fishing as a “demand-driven” industry, though there has been no study yet showing of particular species traded that are in danger of extinction.

Conservation efforts

While several organizations acknowledge the economic contribution of the industry, especially in developing countries, conservationists frown upon its unsustainable and destructive ways.

The city government of Batangas plans to ban aquarium fishing by 2020 and replace it with a more sustainable livelihood, said city fisheries chief Gerry Peralta.

While there is as yet no study to show the direct impact of aquarium fishing to ecological imbalance, Peralta noted a downtrend of fish stock in Batangas. BFAR records showed a “remarkable decline” from 21,000 metric tons to 4,000 MT from 1987 to 1995 due to coral bleaching, pollution and unsustainable and excessive fishing.

Compressor-diving also poses a lot of risks to fish collectors on Verde Island.

In skin-tight clothes and improvised wooden fins, they dive 15 to 45 meters deep in search of their targets. The rarer the fish, the higher its price in the market, they say.

A compressor on a boat pumps the oxygen through a hose that serves as the divers’ underwater lifeline.

DEEP DIVE: At 45 meters deep into the sea, Pedro Ebora patiently stalked his targets, net in hand, among the teeming schools of colorful tropical fish as he puffed air pumped through a rubber hose that dangled a long way up a waiting wooden boat.
“I was (underwater) for an hour,” Ebora said, when the supply of oxygen suddenly stopped. “I felt nauseous. I could no longer [bring] myself back to the boat.”
Though he was able to swim upward to the surface to join fellow fishermen, his legs were already numb. “You could cut them off with a saw and I wouldn’t feel a thing,” he said.

Cyanide use

“It’s not like how a scuba tank works,” said San Andres village leader, Arnold Briton, who was once a fish collector himself. “The oxygen (from the compressor) is not even filtered, you’d sometimes (get a) taste of the oil.”

In many cases when the compressor fails, fishermen race up to the surface, resulting in “bends” or nitrogen buildup in their bodies. Many suffer from decompression sickness, develop hearing or lung problems, or end up paralyzed or dead, Briton said. 

Aquarium fishing is globally known for the use of sodium cyanide. The toxic chemical squirted on the reefs stuns the fish making it easier for the fisherman to snag it.

The International Marinelife Alliance (IMA) traced early use of cyanide in the Philippines in 1962, adding that for every cyanide-caught fish, about a square yard of coral was destroyed.

In 1989, the IMA and the Haribon Foundation trained Verde Island fishermen to shift from cyanide-fishing to using handheld dip nets.

Fish collector Tranquelino Mariano, 63, swore they had abandoned the use of the chemical since, realizing that the captured fish were disfigured (a fin lost or its scales damaged) or died easily.

Often, Briton said aquarium collectors run into trouble with the Bantay Dagat (sea patrols) personnel, who believe they still practice cyanide fishing.

Fishing bans and marine sanctuaries on the VIP have reduced their fishing grounds, forcing them to go farther out and deeper into the seas to meet the industry demand.

“We understand (the predicament) because it’s their livelihood at stake. That’s why what has been agreed to is a gradual phaseout,” Peralta said.

Dialogues with the community have been going on for the last 18 years with proposals for in-captive fish breeding or tourism projects on Verde Island.

But without a concrete alternative, Briton said aquarium fish collectors can’t help but worry about the future.

PLAYTIME: In the absence of electronic gadgets, children in the fishing community of San Andres on Verde Island in Batangas province spend their idle time playing with a toy boat that they made from scrap wood.

Casting a fishing line with a coral sinker and a plastic-bottle reel, children as young as 8 years old catch their next meal from the pebbled shore of Barangay San Andres here.

Most of the women are at home, raising hogs or weaving “buli” (palm) mats, while the men are out at sea to fish for food or collect aquarium fish to sell in Metro Manila.

Their houses dot a hillslope, built to withstand the frequent storms. Drinking water comes from deep wells while electricity is supplied by several solar panels.

Life is simple and slow in San Andres, a small, poor community on Verde Island along the Verde Island Passage (VIP), a marine and terrestrial zone of rich biological diversity spanning almost 2 hectares and more than 100 kilometers south of Manila.

Biologists have discovered a thriving marine ecosystem (1.14 million ha) along the passage in what most people called the “richest place on earth.”

The lives of over 2 million people from at least five provinces — Batangas, Oriental Mindoro, Occidental Mindoro, Marinduque and Romblon — are inextricably connected to the VIP, their main source of livelihood. As of 2015, the combined population of the provinces was 4.5 million.

One of the Philippines’ richest fishing grounds, the marine corridor teems with hundreds of species of fish, sea turtles, mangroves, sea grass, nudibranchs and corals some described as “extremely rare.”

It is a potentially huge source of genetic resources for biomedicine, according to Titon Mitra, country director of the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

In 2005, Kent Carpenter, a professor of Old Dominion University, and Victor Springer, a scientist of Smithsonian Institution, released their findings on the VIP that people began talking about what they called the “center of the center of marine shore fish biodiversity.”

“While it’s on paper and scientifically proven, it still wasn’t that much appreciated,” said Dr. Augustus Rex Montebon, marine program director of Conservation International-Philippines.


The threats come from the growing human population, illegal and overfishing, industrial pollution, maritime traffic and climate change.

San Andres villagers, in particular, engage in aquarium fishing, an unsustainable and destructive practice that involves cyanide use.

Failure to address the threats will put the Philippines in an “embarrassing” situation as it is also a party to many other international conservation treaties, Montebon said.

Local governments have responded piecemeal, imposing seasonal fishing bans, enclosing areas for sanctuaries and crafting individual ordinances on marine protection.

Only in 2015 did conservation efforts go full blast. That year, the VIP was selected one of the sites for the Strengthening the Marine Protected Area System to Conserve Marine Key Biodiversity Areas (SMARTSeas), a project funded by the UNDP and implemented by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

“I think people here are quite aware that we are at the center [of marine biodiversity],” said Arnold Briton, barangay chair of San Andres. “We always tell our aquarium [fishermen], ‘If you happen to see plastics in the corals, take them out because we have [the sea] as our only source of income,’” he said.

They have abandoned cyanide-fishing a long time ago, Briton said.

The village holds regular coastal cleanups, but unfortunately, it does not have funds to build a landfill and household garbage are either recycled, buried or burned. 

RECYCLED: Plywood and trapaulin were used to make diving fins.

Network of protection

In 2016, the University of the Philippines’ Marine Science Institute studied the sanctuaries or marine protected areas (MPAs) within the VIP and found the entire ecosystem “connected.”

This meant that “you cannot pick one MPA out since it is part of a network,” said Dr. Vincent Hilomen, project manager of SMARTSeas.

An MPA is the government’s primary approach to protect specific species. It serves to replenish the fish population by creating a spawning stock (number of fish capable of reproduction), balance the species’ age structure, and create a “spill over effect” once the mature fish leave the sanctuary.

In the VIP, the protected zones initially covered 17,000 ha of critical habitats. About 2 percent, or 3,000 ha of mostly fish breeding grounds, are strictly “no-take zones” and the rest allowed for hook-and-line fishing and other nondestructive activities.

Verde Island has two fish sanctuaries — the diving site of Pulong Bato (18 ha) at Barangay San Agapito and the “Washing Machine” (15 ha) at Barangay San Agustin.

San Andres fishermen often run into trouble in these villages, as people believe they still practice cyanide-fishing. Briton said the sanctuaries had reduced the fishing grounds of aquarium collectors, who are forced to go farther out and deeper in the sea to meet industry demands.

To keep their heads above water, fish collectors train as diving guides on Verde Island for extra income.

Another alternative by the government is an in-captive breeding of certain aquarium species, while a Batangas lawmaker has promised them jobs in resorts once tourism on the island goes full blast, Briton said.

AQUARIUM FISH TRADE: A fish collector changes water and pumps fresh oxygen into bags that contain live ornamental fish as these are readied for tansport to Metro Manila.

Streamlining policies 

“[Having an MPA] does not necessarily mean you’re closing the area entirely from all activities. That’s the wrong notion,” Hilomen said. An MPA protects not only the fish stock, but also the reefs, mangroves and the rest of the underwater resources, he said.

To streamline government policies, an agreement was signed to form a single MPA network among the five VIP provinces, the DENR, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, and law enforcement units. Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu signed it in August.

“It’s like all these smaller MPAs put under a bigger MPA,” Montebon said.

The VIP network, the first one formed among key biodiversity areas in the Philippines, helps draw support from the national government and external funding institutions.

Batangas Gov. Hermilando Mandanas, whose province has the biggest population in the VIP, raised concerns about alternative livelihood for fishermen to discourage overfishing. “We have to have a lot of jobs for the fishermen so they won’t go fishing anymore,” he said.

In a meeting in September, the governors pushed for ecotourism projects in the VIP and agreed to invest more and include marine protection programs in local development plans.

Montebon said his group, Conservation International-Philippines, welcomed the initiatives so long as these stayed within the natural limits of the VIP. Marine ecosystems are “like a tree that you can’t keep asking for more than the fruits it can actually bear,” he said.