In early January 2003, I had the opportunity to go the Philippines - my wife is Filipina and one side of her family was having a reunion. Towards the end of October 2002, certain information about the Marine Aquarium Council was being discussed, with various interesting posts appearing on Reef Central and at #reefs speaker presentation and their Industry forum. At the time, I had planned to spend a few days diving at one of the resorts in Anilao or Puerto Galera. Intrigued by the posts, I thought about instead investigating some of the actual collection practices while I was there. I knew of only one other hobbyist/industry person who had gone there, JT Croteau, so I turned to him for advice. In typically convoluted fashion, I was put in touch with a friend of a friend of an exporter who knew someone who knew some net-caught fishermen. What follows is an account of my trip…

Map developed from original source provided by Reefbase.1

Following a seven-hour ride up from Manila, Ferdinand Cruz pulls off the main road north of Subic Bay, onto a two-tracker. The two-tracker had no road name, no sign whatsoever. A foreigner would never know it actually led to a resort. We continue down it slowly, the land changing from grassland to rice paddies and back. At one point, we reach a man pulling his carabao, the native Philippine water buffalo. Notoriously slow, we stop behind it, as the man tried in vain to pull the animal off the road - there was no way to pass it as the road was one lane, elevated about three feet above rice paddies on either side of the road. We were going nowhere. The man grew increasingly frustrated as the carabao got irritated and stopped dead in its tracks.

This doesn't seem to be at all out of place to me - we are in the country, what people living in Manila would refer to as "The Provinces." We are stopped, watching the man match wits with beast. So far, the beast is winning. Suddenly, the man drops his rope (the other end of which is strung through the nose of the carabao and knotted), walks to the left side of the carabao, and, with Herculean-effort, tips the carabao over. Our truck erupted into laughter as we watched the carabao fall over sideways, down the side of the road, and land with a huge splash in the rice paddy. The man makes a sign, seeming to say that he was sorry for holding us up. We didn't mind as it was the first honest-to-goodness cow-tipping (or carabao-tipping) we had ever seen. Even the carabao didn't seem to mind.

We arrive at a hut inside a compound. I can see that some work has gone into this place - the area is fenced in. A rather large Jeepney with the words "Fire Fish" emblazoned on back is parked in front, alerting me to the fact a fish collector lives here. Ferdie announces that this is Roger's home. Roger does not live in abject poverty - he is actually relatively well off compared to many others in this province. Roger owns a Jeepney, from money he earned working as a fish collector in Hawaii many years back (Figure 1 below). He owns a cell phone for his business. His home consists of thin cement outer walls that have never tasted paint, an uneven cemented floor, small crooked holes fitted with wooden slat that serve as windows, a door made of flimsy patched together wooden slabs, and a rusted tin roof full of holes patched by tar. The roof has no ceiling or insulation, so the interior of the house is oven hot during summer. I cannot imagine that the roof doesn't leak a lot during the monsoon season. At the side of the house under a mango tree you can see their kitchen consisting of a makeshift wooden stove and a table where the family dines during fine weather. The restroom is an outhouse on the other side of the house. Some of the land is cultivated, and there are many chickens running around. Roger greets us warmly and introduces us to the clan. We sit outside in the chairs of honor - plastic patio chairs, a luxury here, and chat about fish collection.

Figure 1. Roger Hernandez standing next to his family Jeepney. He was nicknamed
Firefish for his ability to catch so many.

Roger is the leader of a local Marine Ornamental fisheries collective. There are 37 or 38 fishermen who form the collective, not all of whom are actively fishing right now. Many opt to fish when there is no other work available to them. Much of the work comes in the form of manual labor. In the year 2000, the Philippines passed a law mandating a minimum wage equal to 250 pesos per day for construction work. I understand it was recently raised to 265 pesos per day. At the current exchange rates of 53.5 pesos per 1 US dollar, the rate is roughly $5/day. Here in Zambales, no one pays that much. A typical wage is 60 to 80 pesos per day. You can understand that this does not go very far. Some days they go hungry from lack of money for food.

I ask Roger how much money he makes fishing in a typical week. He hesitates for a bit, saying it is hard for him to generalize. Some factors are beyond their control, for example, the weather, etc. Ferdie breaks into Tagalog, the Philippine national language, telling him that I'm only looking for a ballpark figure. Roger nods, thinks a bit, then says maybe 500 pesos per week ($9.35) in good weather. Some weeks, he loses money. He earns a little by using his jeepney to transport fish.

When I ask his opinion about exporters, he laughs, looks around a bit, looks at Ferdie, then back to me, as if searching for an answer or trying to decide whether to be diplomatic or truthful. Filipinos do not like to make direct criticism of others- it is considered rude. Some are okay, he finally admits. Most of the others he wouldn't deal with willingly if he had a choice. He prefers to deal exclusively with Marivi Laurel of Aquarium Habitat. He explains that Marivi's screeners never use their hands and never touch the fish. They will spend several hours with him, using freshwater-dipped nets or small plastic containers to segregate or move the fish.

Roger speaks of some screeners at other exporters who openly ask for cash. In such cases, he says that you have to pay; otherwise the screener will reject 30-40% of the fish. He continues that the exporters will not return these "rejects," and that not a single one of these "rejects" has ever survived a week. When he returns a week later, he is inevitably told "Oh, those fish all died."

With respect to "rejects", again Roger says that Marivi is the only exporter he trusts. She normally keeps rejects and tries to rehabilitate them. If they do not improve within a week, she sends them back to Subic and has them released in the bay. He concludes that there had been many times when Marivi has asked him personally to release whole boxes of fish back into Subic Bay. Ferdinand tells me that he thinks Roger actually releases them into the no-take zone designated in the Palauig Collection Area Management Plan.

Ferdinand interrupts us to say that Roger's wife will need to head to the market before they close in order to purchase our dinner. We hand her some money and proceed to transfer the scuba gear into Roger's Jeepney.

We head to the place we are to spend the night, Alta Beach Resort. When we pull up, the place looks like a horror movie set. Not a single person was evident, no lights were on, and no movement save a thin wisp of smoke rising from one small open hut. Ferdie calls out, then goes ahead and disappears into the night. I begin to think of Bates Motel. Then a light comes on, and another, and someone who looks nothing at all like Anthony Perkins comes out and shows us to our rooms. Calling this a "Resort" is quite a stretch. The room has no towels, no toilet paper, no toilet seat, no hot water, no screens on the windows, no mosquito nets, the rooms are nasty, smelling of neglect, mold and mildew. Ceiling tiles are hanging down, revealing evident termite damage to the roofing timbers. No bed sheets. Oh, and ants in the bed. Can't forget those pesky little ants… I've stayed in some pretty low-end accommodations before, but this was awful. Worst of all, the price is almost $25 US per night. For that price, you can find three star hotels in the heart of Manila. One night of this "Resort" was plenty.

On our walk down to the beach, we realize that it must be toad mating season, as there were literally hundreds of toads out, some as large as six inches long. The property itself seemed nice enough. The smell of the ocean breeze is sublime.

We head back to the room and I set up my Nikonos for the collection trip the following day. Presently, Ferdinand calls us for dinner. Chicken in a stew-like broth with vegetables, rice, bananas, Coke, water, and steamed fish is served. Upon closer examination I realize that the fish was the largest Naso tang I had ever seen. It felt a bit strange to eat an aquarium fish at first, but dipped in the local vinegar with crushed hot peppers, it was quite delicious. Ferdinand tells us that this is a local delicacy; this particular fish is expensive here. He explains that it probably cost 30 pesos ($0.55) at the local market. Given that the local daily pay rate is only 60-80 pesos, I understand.

The following morning, we wake up to the sounds of roosters. Not just one rooster, or even a dozen. It was more like four or five dozen roosters. One rooster can't finish its "cock-a-doodle do" call, before another two or three…dozen… join in. I feel like I have barely slept. I get up and look out- there isn't even the hint of pink in the horizon in any direction. I dig out a clock and look at the time: 3:30 am. These roosters are retarded, I think. I lay back down to try to sleep. I dream briefly of a mountain of fried chicken, or at least wish I did. Alta Beach Resort and Chicken Farm is what the sign should have said… When dawn finally broke, I got up and started getting everything ready for the trip ahead.

Because Roger had planned to make a run to Manila the night before, the bancas (boats) had been brought into the river basin and tied up at high tide. Now it was low-tide, or close to it, and the bancas were high and dry. We wait for the tide to rise and finally, the fishermen head back to the river to haul them down far enough to reach water deep enough to actually run the engines. Instead of the 9am start, it was closer to 11am.

While we wait to head out, we eat breakfast, and talk some more about their situation.

Roger shows us the logbook required by MAC; the binder was over two inches thick and every document was in English (Figure 2 below). I ask Roger, "How many of the collectors speak English?" "Very few," he responds. (Even Roger is not exactly what I would call perfectly fluent in English;- there were instances where we had trouble communicating. I was lucky that Marelet is still somewhat fluent in Tagalog and we could work things out.) I learn that, for the most part, the collectors do not really understand what they are filling out in the MAC logbook. This is not difficult to understand when you realize that the collectors' education level is between the 2nd and 4th grade.

Figure 2. Note the thickness of the logbook that is required by the Marine Aquarium Council. Most of the fishermen can barely fill out the forms due to their educational levels. The entire book is in English. It was difficult for me to understand why it was not translated into Tagalog for the collectors.

Based on this reality (that most of the collectors cannot read and speak basic English) I find it striking that the MAC logbooks were not translated into Pilipino, the national language based on the Tagalog dialect. From my perspective, you can pretty much use Pilipino and Tagalog interchangeably; they both mean the same thing. In other areas, when I spoke with indigenous tribes, they told me that they speak their native tongues inside the villages, but that with anyone outside, they are forced to speak "Tagalog." Never once did I hear anyone call it "Pilipino."

This morning, the temperature is in the upper-70's, but to Roger, this is bone-chillingly cold. He laughs and admits that he hates diving for fish at this time of year because it is so cold. In kind, I have to laugh - the only reason I would wear a wetsuit is due to the fact that I want to protect myself from coral cuts and abrasions, not due to the cold. He laughs as I share this, insisting it really is too cold. I look down and notice that Roger has several spots on his legs that, to my eyes, appear to be cuts and abrasions from coral. I decide not to press the matter.

We return to the topic of exporters: He tells me a story about one of the larger ones. They called Roger and told him that they had a large order that needed to be filled. They gave him a list of fish and quantities and told him to bring them down to Manila in two days. Roger immediately contacted the collective and they decided to do their best to fill the order. That afternoon and the next day were spent out on the reef, collecting the fish. This is somewhat dangerous as they spent most of the daylight hours underwater, which would severely increase their odds of getting the bends. That evening they packed the fish into plastic bags, boxed them, and loaded them into the Jeepney. Next came the long ride down to Manila, 6 hours if the traffic is light.

When they arrived at the exporter, they were told, "Oh, you are too late. We had another collector just deliver all that we needed. We're pretty stocked up right now, I'm not sure if we can even take the fish… Let me see…Ok, I think we have enough room, but we really don't need them. I can't give you that much for them…"

In the end, Roger and crew didn't even earn enough money to cover the gas to Manila and back. In fact, he told me that the loss was more than the previous two week's worth of wages.

He continues another story, when an exporter's screener demanded (this is done secretly) a payment up-front. He refused. The screener took most of his fish, definitely all of the lower-end ones. Then he got to the Imperator angels (what everyone calls 'blue faces')- Roger had brought down three of them, and claims they were perfect. Blue-face Angels are considered the 'money fish' as they get a good price for the collector. The screener rejected them, saying that they looked weak, but that they would put them into their quarantine system. Come back next week, he was told. Of course, when he returned, he was told that the fish had died. Those three fish were worth as much or more than the rest of the consignment. When I asked him what he thinks really happened to the fish, he shrugs and goes silent. I can tell he wants to say more. He finally says that as far as he sees, nothing in their quarantine system ever lives. Meaning that any fish he has left with them, he has never gotten paid for. They all "die". He suspects that he has just been had, because he has refused to pay the screener the demanded kickback.

I ask about cyanide use. Roger tells me he was trained in nets years ago, and has never looked back. He sees how cyanide has hurt the reef, and has been against its use for years. Some of the fishermen in the collective have used it - you could consider them reformed. I would have to be honest that, when we were at his house the day before, I did look around quite a bit, looking for any squirt bottles or other signs of cyanide use. I saw none. What I did see were a few barrier nets and hand nets. For all intents and purposes, Roger seems to be the real thing: an honest net-caught fisherman. I asked him about cyanide use by other collectors not in the collective. Here he hesitates, and admits that he honestly doesn't know. Ferdinand made a comment to me when reviewing this article- he said that he thought Roger and I might have misunderstood each other. To quote Ferdie, "He (Roger) said he knew that some of them used to use cyanide but now only a few use it and he knows them, but all of them were hoping that things will change with the entry of MAC." (Edited slightly for grammar).

Finally, we get word that the bancas (outrigger boats) are down at the beach shore. We hop in the Jeepney and drive down there, where I see three very small bancas. I help bring things down to the boats, including my scuba gear, Nikonos setup and poor man's Pelican case (Why, an Instant Ocean bucket, of course!). I take some photos of the bancas while the gear is distributed and re-distributed, the bancas filled up with gasoline, and then we are ready to get underway (Figures 3, 3a, 3b, 3c below).

Figure 3. Close-up of outrigger.

Figure 3a. This fisherman covered his face and body as much as possible to protect
himself from the sun. Note the two homemade spearfishing guns in the front
of the boat. The bamboo piece is used to steer the banca.

Figure 3b. Note the large round holding net. I like the nice plastic gasoline tank.

Figure 3c. A typical outrigger banca. The outriggers are made of bamboo and very thick
monofilament line. Apparently, bamboo bends with heat.

To digress for a moment, I have to dispel one of the great myths that have erupted on the Internet. People have seen pictures of cyanide fishermen - many of these photos have the fishermen covering their faces. The automatic assumption on our part is that they are covering their faces because they want to hide their identity. Maybe that is partly true, but the main reason why they cover their faces and head is because it is so incredibly bright. The fishermen around me are already tanned to a deep, dark brown; they are just trying to protect their face and eyes from the light. It is not meant to hide their identity (see Figure 3a).

As we take off and start out, we go past several reef areas. We are behind a barrier reef. I can see the waves breaking onto it off to the north - my right. The wind is not very strong, so the waves do not have whitecaps. However, there are times when the waves are quite gentle, yet pronounced. I guess you would call it "rolling seas", but there were times where I could not see the banca in front of us. At the bottom of the trough, you descend into your own little world, with no land visible around you. At the top of the wave, everything magically reappears. As we head out, we pass by some human-powered bancas, very small craft with one or two people armed with paddles. I look back and wonder if I could paddle out a mile and back like these people had.

The trip out takes maybe 45 minutes to an hour. When we reach the collection area, the boats all stop near each other. I didn't see them throw down any anchors. Mostly the divers busied themselves as I did- putting on whatever gear they had, putting out the hookah hoses, and getting the hookahs started. Various nets and bags and containers came out.

I started to get in with all my gear and learned something very important- bancas are, despite the outriggers, quite tippy, almost as bad as a canoe. I sent Roger over the side as I was getting out, as the boat itself tipped to a larger angle than it should have. I felt like such an idiot, but Roger was stoic- he laughed about it later as I apologized profusely. Up top, the hookah operators worked hard to keep their lines from getting tangled and crossed. Their hookahs are locally fabricated out of air tire compressors or from truck's brake compressors hooked to 50 meters of plastic hose. Once on, they threw the tubing out into the water- it looked ramshackle, but they obviously knew what they were doing. Very surprising to me was the fact that none of the tubing got tied up or tangled. The tubing itself is thicker than aquarium airline tubing. I suspect that the inside diameter was 0.25 of an inch. The collectors jumped in, swam straight to the tubes, tied the end of the tubes to their waists clenched the end part between their teeth and started down. The pressure you put on the tubing while biting on it will regulate the air flow.

Outside the banca, I put on my fins, grabbed my Nikonos, fired up both strobes, double-checked the settings, and started my descent. There were a couple of things that struck me: 1) the visibility wasn't great due to the waves coming in. Since this will make the pictures dicey, I adjust the settings a bit on the Nikonos. 2) The reef is easily visible, and there is a noticeable current coming in. The reef itself has a bit of a spur and groove structure, perfect for barrier netting. The reef is not super-healthy: I would estimate that the coral cover was roughly 20-30%. In one area, there was a ton of breakage all piled together. It was tough to tell if this was due to blast fishing or storm damage. All of the coral here was dead and algae-covered. I give up trying to tell what caused this, and start to follow the collectors.

One of the nets being set up was two bamboo circles about 0.75-1 meter in diameter that were tied together into a netting cylinder (see Figure 4 below & see earlier Figure 3b). The edges were gathered at the top and bottom. A rope section was tied off at the bottom, in about 40 feet of water. The top of the net had a short bit of rope, then a float. The entire cylinder opened up and was used as a collection station by several collectors. In the current, the cylinder laid mostly on its side.

Figure 4. Holding net - used by the collectors to hold fish so they do not have to
empty their bags until they go up.

Some of the collectors used large plastic bags to hold their fish after capture while others used mesh bags that held containers such as plastic jars with lids, butter containers, etc.; these all had obvious puncture holes for water exchange. These guys all had on belts, under which they tucked the bags while they set their nets (Figures 5 & 5a below).

Figure 5. Net full of plastic containers used for more aggressive fish. You can also see the hookah apparatus here.

Figure 5a. This is a typical posture the collector uses before he swims down to scoop up the fish in the barrier net. Here he is holding the bag - I only realized that I never got a shot of one of the fishermen with his bag under his belt after I returned home. Note the homemade fins and the way the hookah hose is used.

If you have ever seen any video of barrier net fishing being done, it is likely the same clip I have seen. The collectors are Westerners, and the barrier nets are quite large. The video I watched had a net about 20-30 feet long and at least 6 feet high. Under ideal conditions, with absolutely no current, those nets might be okay to use. But in our current location, current wasn't strong at all, and I could already tell that such nets would be useless, and would probably cause a lot of coral damage as the nets would be blown into the coral heads.

Here in Palauig, most of the collectors use barrier nets that are between 18-22 inches high and roughly 15 feet wide. The netting itself can be either machine- or hand-made. Ferdinand explained that some of the fishermen in Palauig, like Batangas, made the best nets he had ever seen- they were made with light monofilament and were hand-knotted. It takes about three months of spare time to make a square section that is roughly one meter by one meter. Thus, the fishermen mostly used machine-made netting. The bottom of these nets is a thick-test monofilament line, threaded through the netting, with lead sinkers strung on it every few centimeters. The top of the netting is similar, with thick-test monofilament strung through the netting, but instead of sinkers, they used a flotation device. I had to laugh when I realized that these flotation devices were, in fact, cut up, recycled flip-flops. Ferdinand later explained that he had looked for commercial parts, but that they were more than ten times the cost, so the fishermen essentially all bought new shoes and used their old ones for the nets.

A collector hangs above a groove, in a spur and groove formation, looking down the groove into the current. He notes how the fish are out feeding and how they are bunched together. He spots a likely group for capture. He starts swimming into the current, moving forward slightly. His prey is ahead about 15 feet and maybe 20 feet below him. He grips the barrier net and starts to let it drop. From the behind and to the side, the strategy makes perfect sense. The middle of the net hangs down in an almost perfect V form. The current makes it dangle backwards, towards his feet. As he swims towards his prey, the net is strung out further and further until the collector is just holding the ends of the net. Below him, the base of the V is centered on the groove, and is now hanging down past his feet. He moves closer and closer, and then drops the net. It floats down smoothly, blocking the path straight up into the groove. As he lets go, he bursts forward, behind the fish. Some dart down, straight into the barrier net. Others bounce upward in the water column. The collector tries to coax these into the net, but they refuse, swimming up and just over it to safety. Quickly, the collector dives down to the net and scoops up the fish and deposits them into a large plastic bag (Figures 6, 6a, 6b, 6c below). He smiles at me, posing with his catch.

Figure 6. The collector releases the net as it trails behind him, setting it across a groove formation.

Figure 6a. With the barrier net set in position, the collector heads in to scoop up the fish with his hand net.

Figure 6b. In this close-up, you can see the two fish he is after.

Figure 6c. One of the two fish being deposited into the plastic holding bag.

After putting the bag back into his belt, he dives down again to the net. Here comes the hard part - picking it up again. Most of the net is on reef rock and comes off easily. Some parts of it have gotten tangled into coral. Most of the corals suffer no visible damage, although I am sure there is some slight tissue damage (Figures 6d, 6e below).

Figure 6d. Here the collector works to free his barrier netting from the coral.

Figure 6e. After scooping up the fish, the hard part begins: gathering the net without damaging the coral.

Once I saw the net get pretty tangled up in a Seriatopora hystrix colony. The collector spent several minutes trying to get the net out of the coral- I am sure he wasn't aware I was watching as I had swum up behind him. He spent more time pulling his net out of the coral than I personally would have. In the end, he ended up breaking off some of the S. hystrix. What I found interesting was the fact that he stuck a few of the fragments into cracks in the reef. This was obviously not for show, since I am positive that he never knew I was there.

As I continued to follow the first collector, I watched the same routine repeated again and again. There were times where the collector set the net, only to watch the fish all scramble in the opposite direction. Other times, the fish would swim into the net, then turn around and swim out. It was interesting watching a collector trying to herd fish into a net. It is amazing that they are as successful as they are.

As I swam around, I saw some coral damage. One area in particular was badly hit. For a circle of about 30 feet, not a bit of coral was alive, and all was broken off in a rubble field. All of the live rock was covered in turf algae. It was not clear to me what caused this- it was more a mound than a field. It is hard to believe it was blast-fishing damage, but it was harder to believe it was storm damage deposits either. Blast fishing typically leaves a crater depression in the reef and this was a mound. Storm deposits would seem to fill a hole, but this mound was on a spur, with a groove to either side. It was somewhat cemented together, probably via coralline and turf algaes (Figure 7 below).

Figure 7. A mound of dead coral, somewhat cemented together. This is a spur, with a groove on either side of it. For the life of me, I could not figure out what caused this. There was no crater from blast fishing. It doesn't appear to be storm damage either.

Most of the reef areas had about 20-30% coral cover. There were a good number of smaller table corals, mostly 2-3 feet for the largest ones. One smaller table coral was sitting loose upside-down (Figure 8 below). Closer examination did not reveal any major tissue damage on the side of the coral; looking at the base, I could see some boring damage. I would surmise that the coral broke off due to the structural weakening of the base. There were no evident crowbar marks or whatnot…

Figure 8. An overturned table coral. It seemed that the base weakened and it finally snapped.

What was troubling was the spotty bleaching - in several spots, I saw what seemed to be evidence of cyanide usage. What does this look like? Picture a coral sitting over a hole- something perfect for fish to duck into. Everything is bleached white above the hole and in the coral head. Not the whole coral is bleached, but about a third of it is (Figures 9, 9a below). When I later described what I saw to Ferdinand Cruz and the local fisheries officer, Pedro Aguillon, they both agreed that it sounded like evidence of cyanide use.

Figure 9. Apparent cyanide damage to this Acropora colony (upper right).

Figure 9a. Note the apparent cyanide damage to this coral (mid left), now partially bleached. Underneath it was a nice hiding spot for fish.

Ferdinand Cruz also had shown me a 'butterfly net,' which is used for the collection of a few particular species, especially certain damsels and firefish. It consists of two sticks held parallel, with netting between them. I swam around, looking for a collector using one, but all were using barrier nets today. Of the fish collected, I did not see a single firefish. Ferdinand had said that Roger was well known for his firefish collection abilities- Roger told me that he had once collected over 300 firefish on a single dive.Ferdie says he meant in a single day.

Earlier I spoke of the black net used to hold fish- I watched one of the collectors as he brought his two bags of fish and emptied them into this holding net, then go back to collecting with his barrier net. I found it interesting that the collectors didn't go back up to the banca with their catch, but held the fish in the holding net until they finished. I never had an opportunity to ask why.

I finished my roll of film and surfaced in order to change it. The other scuba diver, Frank, had gone up earlier as his regulator was malfunctioning. As soon as I surfaced, all the collectors did too. Roger was already up and had a box of fish in the banca (Figure 10 below). I got my scuba gear off and climbed into the banca. Next thing I knew, all three of the hookah operators were reeling in the hoses and the collectors were loading their fish on board, getting ready to depart. I was a bit surprised, and asked Roger why they were leaving so soon; I had a good deal of air left in my first tank, and the second tank was sitting there untouched. He complained that the weather was bad - the waves were too high, so the fish were not really out.

Figure 10. A cooler full of fish. A day's work.

Figures 11 & 12. Here the collectors hold up a bag full of the day's catch.

I have to admit I was disappointed. Later, I learned from Ferdinand that Roger's wife had burned her leg on a motorcycle tailpipe, and it had gotten infected. Roger was worried about her, as she had been having shooting pains up and down the leg due to the infection. Had we not been there, Roger would not have gone out at all that day. As soon as we were dropped off at the beach, Roger took his wife to the hospital.

When we got back, I busied myself with cleaning up the gear and started packing. Roger's daughter brought lunch, and it was fried chicken. I fantasized that it was one of the roosters that woke me up that morning at 3:30am, and bit into each chunk heartily. I have to say, it was a great meal.

Soon afterwards, the local BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) official, Pedro Aguillon, came by. We did not have as much time to speak with him as we would have liked- we had to return the scuba equipment to Subic by 5pm. He spoke of the area, of the collectors and the problems they faced. Cyanide use had been going down steadily in the area over the last few years. Recently, they had gotten word about blast fishermen operating in the area. In talking to the villagers, Pedro had obtained information that led to the arrest and conviction of one of the blast fishermen. Since the arrest, blast fishing had pretty much stopped, but he was concerned about cyanide use. Why?, I asked. Because cyanide is silent, he says. Blast fishing makes a big boom; people can hear it all around. But when you are underwater and quiet, no one knows what you are doing down there. He is afraid that the blast fishermen have turned to cyanide use instead, which actually makes his life more difficult. He has to rely even more on the honest fishermen, leaning on them to tell him about any telltale signs of cyanide use. It is much harder to catch cyanide-fishermen, as there is no real testing method now either, he says (Figure 13 below).

Figure 13. The local BFAR official, Pedro Aguillon, sitting in his Jeepney.

Mr. Aguillon tells a story that is quite moving. He knows all of the main people in the industry, and is friends with several of them. Some of the cyanide pushers are his peers, people he has shared beers with, or had over to his home for dinner. But business can be ugly in the Philippines. When he started getting too close, one of these friends turned on him, and framed him as being one of the protectors of cyanide fishing in the area. Upon his arrest, the cyanide collectors had free rein on the reefs. Ultimately, he was able to prove his innocence, and was freed from jail. He returned to his position, and confronted his stunned 'friend.' He told me that the damage done to the reefs in the short time he was in jail had been enormous. The disgust on his face was there for all to see.

It was quite evident that he cares deeply about his job, and really wants to help the local fishermen, whom he sees as "doing it right." As we leave Palauig, I can't help but feel the same exact way.

P.S. As we were leaving, we ran into Roger again, coming back from the hospital. He was lamenting the fact that he somehow lost the spare tire for his Jeepney on the way to the hospital, and couldn't find it on the way back. He had a load of fish to bring down to Marivi, and now wasn't sure he should risk it.

P.P.S. A couple of days later Ferdinand called Roger to check up on his wife. Although the burn had gotten infected, she had been prescribed some antibiotics and was now doing fine. The shooting pains were gone and the burn finally healing.

Figure 14. Here are a couple of shots of Roger's family.

If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.


1Oliver, J. and M. Noordeloos. Editors. 2002. ReefBase: A Global Information System on Coral Reefs. World Wide Web electronic publication., 10 March, 2003.

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