The last morning on Malapascua Island, after six weeks of making it my home, is the one morning I remember best. I sat on the beach before sunrise, listening to the island slowly come awake. Gentle waves whispered softly as they caressed the shoreline. The bancas rumbled pleasantly, brimming with tourists as they lumbered out to sea, seeking its riches. Sleepy dive guides chattered in cebuano, their native tongue. Later that day, I would hear the one sound I will never forget – the distant boom of dynamite underwater.
Malapascua Island is 1.6 miles by .6 miles at it’s widest tips. It lies off the very tip of Cebu Island in the Central Visayas of the Philippines, a delicate hourglass-shaped mass of sand and palm trees nestled amidst colorful reefs. Warm, clear water, white sand beaches, and sunshine: it is undeniably a tropical paradise. I was there on a mission with a United Nations Environment Program called Green Fins. My purpose was seemingly simple – to promote environmentally friendly diving and to investigate threats to the local fishing community. The tasks proved to be anything but simple.
Although tiny, Malapascua has a fantastic treasure that draws tourists from all over the world – thresher sharks. These gorgeous long-tailed sharks visit a seamount off the shores of Malapascua, luring divers underwater to see their magnificence. The frequent visitors from Europe, Asia, and the Americas bring prosperity to the 14 dive centers that have established themselves on the island.
A closer look reveals that picture-perfect Malapascua is in peril. There are only two ways of life that people can choose on this island – working for the dive resorts, or fishing. When one wanders away from the beautiful resorts, it is not long before they encounter one of the many little fishing villages. The fishermen here are shy and only speak cebuano. I am white, a woman, and do not speak their language. But with some coaxing and a good translator, they tell me their story.
These fishermen rely on generations of knowledge, passed down to them by their fathers and grandfathers. The elders, those who have been seeking the sea’s bounty for 20, 30, 40 years or more, understand that their way of life is in danger. I spoke with an elder of the village Bool, on the opposite side of the island from the resorts. My translator interpreted his words:
“He is worried for his sons. They must travel farther away from the shore than they have ever had to travel before. The fish are smaller and fewer every year. What will his sons have, when all the fish are gone?”
The day’s catch is laid out to dry on wracks of wire and wood. The fish are few and tiny, juveniles caught before having a chance to reproduce. Any large fish caught are sold immediately to the resorts or buyers on the mainland, destined for the dinner plates of tourists.
So what is the problem? Why are the fish becoming more scarce? I asked these questions in every village. There are too many fishermen now, they said. Too many fishermen and not enough fish, a terrible side effect of a growing population. They also had knowledge of another threat, one even more disturbing than overfishing.
“Boats come from other islands. They come at night so the police cannot see them, cannot stop them. They use hulbot-hulbot and take our fish,” the translator tells me.
Hulbot-hulbot is a severely destructive form of fishing where blocks of concrete are dropped off the boat, crushing the coral so the fishermen can catch the fleeing fish with large nets. It not only catches mass amounts of fish, but it destroys their reef homes. Fishermen on Malapascua don’t use this form of fishing; ecotourism is too important to the island. Sadly, neighboring islands know this – when night falls, their boats silently infiltrate Malapascua’s waters to plunder their healthier reefs and take their fish.
Then there is the dynamite.
Dynamite fishing is even more devastating. Homemade bombs are created and dropped in the water, leaving behind rubble craters 1-2 meters in diameter per blast. Coral only grows 1 cm a year. Hundreds of years of coral growth can be obliterated in just a few seconds. Fish habitat is destroyed as coral reefs crumble under the immense pressure of the blasts. The sediment and dust left behind smother new corals, ensuring that a dead wasteland will continue existing long after the annihilation of the living system.
One toss of a homemade bomb will yield a horde of stunned fish. A net or hook and line would take all day to provide the same amount. But at what cost does this all come? It is the utmost example of unsustainable fishing. Wherever the dynamite fishermen go, there is nothing left when they leave. It is all-too-familiar for frequent divers of Malapascua Island, who hear the thunderous booms when diving – even from miles away.
Both hulbot-hulbot and dynamite fishing are illegal, of course. The problem is enforcement. The bantay dagat, the marine police of the island, have only one small boat and cannot carry weapons. The poachers have much faster boats and carry firearms. It is an unfair battle between ecotourism and fishing, legal and illegal, all on nature’s turf.
Malapascua is a wonderful place with many rich natural resources to offer. But humans have taken advantage of it and now the sickness is growing. Numerous other islands suffer the same threat of harmful fishing. With so much destructive fishing occurring, Malapascua’s reefs – and ultimately the ecotourism industry – are in danger. Small-scale local fishermen may soon no longer have a livelihood.
Nevertheless, I saw much hope while I was there. Education is key – conservation groups are attempting to understand all the threats that face Philippine reefs and how to mitigate them. Their work is only just beginning. Green Fins is investigating threats to local ecosystems and is providing dive centers with free materials on environmentally friendly diving guidelines. They have partnered with a group called Save Philippines Seas, who are working with the bantay dagat to establish a hotline which anyone can use to report environmental violations, such as illegal fishing. Both of these groups have a strong focus on education, giving the local community the power to work together and make change happen.
Malapascua is just one of many special places around the world that face the human threat. We know how to treat our environment right and keep it healthy. It just a matter of whether or not we choose to do so. It is every person’s decision – choose to keep our oceans healthy by supporting businesses that care about the environment, such as Pucci Foods.