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The Online Magazine for Sustainable Seas
August, 1998 Vol. 1 No. 8

Protecting Our Seas: Lessons From Siargao

A first-person account of a non-governmental organization’s experiences in fighting commercial fishing vessels off Siargao Island, Surigao del Norte







From February 1996 to March 1998, as project coordinator of the CPPAP, my work often took me to Siargao, an island 25 nautical miles off northeast Mindanao in Surigao del Norte. It was here that I had my close encounters with libaliba, commercial fishing vessels with a displacement varying from 15 to 40 gross tons. The libaliba employs the so-called modified Danish seine, a net that encircles a target area, then closes the bottom using a series of rings and a rope attached to a stone weighing about one ton. Under Philippine law, it is prohibited from fishing within 7 km of a coastline, or 15 km if there is a municipal ordinance to that effect. But the libaliba, being a sinking type, prefers shallow waters and is often seen, clearly flaunting the law, in areas close to shore.

Libaliba have been fishing the waters off Siargao for 15 years now, directly affecting four towns on the western side of the island as well as four towns on the mainland. There are about 35 or so libaliba operating here, only three of them coming from Siargao. Every libaliba that raids the shallow seas (deepest at 60 fathoms) at the very least disturbs fish and makes it difficult for small fishers to harvest their just share, as the fish become more mobile and more easily frightened or agitated – "maaling," as the local fishers would say. Indeed, soon after libaliba started operating off Siargao, the hook-and-line fisher began to notice his catch of 7 kilos a day dropping to less than one kilo, even as he worked harder and longer hours. This became his justification for using dynamite, aggravating a situation that was already considered bad from as early as World War II.

In the late eighties, the government began to go after the libaliba, but most cases were dismissed for lack of skills in fishery prosecution. In 1991, the Local Government Code came into effect, devolving many protection measures to the local governments, who were unfortunately ill-prepared to handle fishery and its environmental implications.

To catch a libaliba

Our project team started CPPAP in 1995 as partners of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). In 1996, one year into the project period, we started looking more closely at the libaliba problem, only too aware not only of the environmental damage but also of the injustice being committed against the fishers of Siargao. By this time, libaliba operators, buoyed by law enforcers’ apparent inability to catch them, had become arrogant. They fished shallow waters at will and taunted the local fishers by casting their nets where the fishers were already positioned, forcing the hapless fellows to row away or beg for crumbs.

We studied our options: Siargao Island in 1996 was not yet a protected area, so we could not use protected area laws. At best, the NIPAS (National Integrated Protected Areas System) law was untested. We thus decided to see how well meta-legal tactics could work.

On December 12, 1996, toward the end of my first year as CPPAP coordinator, we caught our first libaliba – the FV Lucky. We built a case against its operator and crew, submitting to local authorities proof of the vessel’s location and that it actually fished within the prohibited zone. But one week after we filed our case, the police let the apprehended vessel slip away. To this day, the case has yet to be heard in court.

Undeterred, we nabbed the FV Flordeliza on April 31, 1997 in a scene straight out of a Tagalog action flick. It took us three days just to bring the vessel to shore. In the process, we survived the FV Flordeliza crew’s effort to bring us to a stalemate by forcing us – including our escort from the Philippine National Police (PNP) -- to their shore. I ended up in a hospital, suffering from "dysfunction due to dehydration and irregular food intake". The vessel, on the other hand, was released after 20 days of impoundment by the PNP on the strength of a promise that the accused crew of 15 would plead guilty. The net was impounded at the SEDF office, and 17 boxes of fish catch were seized.

For all that trouble, the operator was meted a measly fine of P1,500 and the court ordered that the net be released, as the law was silent on its disposition. Before the net could be released, however, a fire hit our office and burned the net. That was enough reason for the net’s alleged owner to file a case against me as CPPAP project coordinator on the contention that I defied the court’s order to release the net. The alleged owner, incidentally, was not the same person from whom the net was seized. (I have since filed a countersuit for malicious harassment.)

Our third libaliba was the FV Sundowner IV, which we apprehended in July 1997 along with a fourth vessel, the FV Jiejie. The FV Sundowner IV was notorious for its alleged "connections" with officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines or the PNP; my research, however, showed no evidence of such connections. The court’s decision came after a marathon hearing 10 days after the vessel’s apprehension. The owner was ordered to pay P1,500 in fines. Again, the vessel and net were released. It would have been a typical fishery case, but for an incident that happened midnight of the same day the court handed down its decision: unknown persons, apparently frustrated by the light punishment meted on the FV Sundowner IV, hurled an explosive at the vessel. They missed, shaking the town instead.

Amid the confusion, the FV Jiejie slipped away, but the case against it went through the entire legal mill and, this time, the court decided to deal the offenders a heavier hand: P1,500 fine for each member of the crew. Only one crew appeared in court; the others remain at large and on the PNP’s "Wanted List".

A case for meta-legal recourse

At first glance, meta-legal tactics appear to have given us only small, hard-won victories. It takes so much effort to take an illegal fishing case to court, and seemingly so little for lawbreakers to walk away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. But, there’s more to this than meets the eye. A court case takes at least 10 days and could cost defendants (vessel’s crew and owner) as much as P65,000 in lawyer’s fees and income loss per vessel of 15 crew (half of the direct costs are borne by the crew). If the law is religiously enforced and no offender is allowed to get away scot-free, therefore, the cost of litigation may be enough deterrent against the intrusion of commercial fishers into municipal waters.

Our team has temporarily stopped going after the libaliba as we are now focusing on the strengthening of people’s organizations (POs) on Siargao. We have purchased equipment, such as global positioning system (GPS) and video, and begun building a monitoring station, which will serve as a lookout base. We have started the establishment of a fish sanctuary and tapped a local lawyer to help the community with pending and future legal cases. We are also in the process of organizing a PO-led Bantay Dagat, which will be operational three months from now; the Bantay Dagat will include reformed mangrove cutters and blast fishers, who are now tasked to protect the area. By Joselito Ramirez Jr., IEC Officer, Surigao Economic Development Foundation Inc., Conservation of Priority Protected Areas Project (CPPAP)Surigao City



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