Plenty more fish in the sea?

So I’ve just come back from an intense 2-day workshop attempting to bring together all of the Emergency Food Security and Vulnerable Livelihoods (EFSVL) staff, along with key staff from the long-term Country Programme in the Philippines, to plan our strategies for the next few months, and try to integrate our emergency response work with longer term sustainable livelihoods frameworks.

Sounds fascinating? It really was.

Here are some of the really interesting challenges and issues we are facing in the long-term recovery process for some key livelihoods sectors in the Philippines. As I started writing this it got longer and longer, so I’ve split it into two separate posts about Fisheries and Coconuts – two sectors that were heavily affected by the typhoon, and face massive challenges in rehabilitation and recovery….


How do you support a fisherman to rebuild his livelihood, and at the same time encourage him not to fish?

boats 2

Over 30,000 fishing boats were damaged or destroyed by typhoon Yolanda, but even before the typhoon some areas were being heavily over-fished, and it wasn’t just boats that were destroyed. The storm caused massive damage to marine eco-systems, corals, mangroves and other fish and aquaculture breeding grounds which will need time to recover.

And it turns out, fish need corals and mangroves in order to hang out, meet other like-minded fish, and have lots and lots of baby fish….

Interesting fact – Grouper fish are all born male and change sex to become female once they reach reproductive maturity, so they can mate with younger male groupers. When fish stocks are too low, people start catching a lot more immature fish, meaning that in the case of groupers, they won’t have time to grow up, become females and reproduce – leaving even fewer groupers left to re-populate the area. Getting fisherfolks boats repaired and replaced quickly will only add to the depletion of dwindling fish stocks – especially close to the coastline where most smaller fishermen get their catch. The smaller fishermen are arguably the most vulnerable, but giving them boats won’t necessarily help them recover their livelihoods if there aren’t enough fish in the sea yet for them to catch.

boats 3

As humanitarians we learnt a lot the 2004 Asian Tsunami, where agencies rushed to provide large numbers of boats, in some cases a lot more boats than there were before, and it was mayhem afterwards, not to mention damaging to the ecosystem in the long run, with such sudden increases in fishing. We need to be careful not to create any new fishermen and exacerbate the situation further.

In the Philippines NGOs are taking this learning on board and being more cautious about just handing out boats willy-nilly, but it doesn’t solve the problem of how to help those fishermen get back on their feet again, and no-one seems to have a clear idea of what the alternatives are. Another interesting challenge is that most of the traditional fishing boats here are made of wood – mostly marine plywood, except for the keel, or kasko, which is made of a very specific type of wood from the Lawa-an tree. But logging of Lawa-an trees is illegal in the Philippines after massive depletion of Lawa-an forests happened across Leyte. So how do you repair or replace a boat when it’s illegal to source the wood for the keel?

boats 1

Many agencies are looking at providing alternative livelihoods for fisherfolk that will provide them with an income – such as training them as carpenters, so that they can help repair damaged boats and also transfer their skills for shelter reconstruction. You can also train them in masonry, welding, and hollow-block/brick making, which are all skills that will be in great demand in the longer-term post-Yolanda reconstruction. However this alone won’t necessarily stop people from going out and fishing. Most of these people have been fishermen their whole lives and come from a family history and tradition of fishing – asking them not to fish, and training them to do something else is simply not going to stop them from fishing. Fishing is in their blood, it’s in their soul, it’s a fundamental part of who they are.

An interesting and innovative approach we are piloting is training groups of fishermen in making fibreglass boats – that way they will have new skills in fibreglass building and repair, but it also means we’ll be able to replace some of the lost boats without needing to use Lawa-an wood for the keels – although it remains to be seen if fisherfolks in the Philippines will accept fibreglass boats as an alternative to wooden ones. Even little things like the weight and balance of a boat in the water can hugely affect the viability of it, as if it’s too unstable on the waves, fishermen just won’t use it. It also depends if you’re on the Pacific side of the island or the gulf or Indian ocean side, as waves and current vary dramatically.

There are other options, such as developing information, education & communication programmes (IEC) to help inform and educate fisherfolk on responsible fishing and the need to allow the ecosystem to recover properly. We can also encourage people to go deep-sea fishing, further away from the coastline where there is less damage and less impact on the marine ecosystem, to allow coastal breeding grounds to recover. However this needs to be addressed carefully and strategically – deep sea fishing is only eco-friendly in this context if it is done more than 15km from the coastline and using the proper nets. Most deep-sea fishing here is commercial, and the smaller fisherfolk don’t have the skills or the boats to go that far out.

We are working closely with the local government to re-establish Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s) but how do you enforce adherence to these protected areas? Especially for fisherfolk who rely on their meagre daily catch to feed their families? We are also supporting Aquaculture which can help coastal recovery – such as seaweed farming (see picture below), which can provide an income while also helping the marine ecosystem to recover faster.


Another important issue is looking at wider market chain for fisheries. Not just repairing fishermen’s boats, but supporting the rehabilitation of ice plants (as no-one can sell their fish or get it to towns without ice), and supporting smaller businesses that are an integral part of the fish value chain – like seaweed drying and fish drying/processing,  smaller ice vendors, and other small businesses that rely on the fishing industry.

In the case of fish drying and processing, it is often very poor women who do this as individuals, selling their dried fish to small traders at a very low price, who then in turn sell it in bulk to bigger traders for better prices. One option is to help communities join up individuals into small cooperatives so they can sell their fish collectively direct to the bigger traders, accessing better prices and getting better profit margins. But obviously you need to be careful not to completely exclude the smaller traders, who’s livelihoods would also be affected if everyone cuts out the middle man!

So there are lots of challenges to be faced in rebuilding the livelihoods of fisherfolk after Yolanda, and no magic solution – but we had a fascinating debate in our workshop about how to develop a cohesive and holistic strategy to address these issues across the whole market/value chain, and there are lots of interesting options out there for us to try together with local communities….

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