20 Fisherfolk Trained as Bantay Dagat Volunteers in Ilocos Norte

Armando Pante, ‘Sarge’ to his troops, saw 21 years of action with the Philippine Marines. He survived the battle for Camp Abubakar in 2000 and won four medals before retiring in 2002. “I returned to my hometown of Pasuquin in Ilocos Norte to live my days in peace. But fighting is in my blood,” he says.

Retired Philippine Marine Corps Technical Sergeant Armando Pante is one of 20 new Bantay Dagat members. He will now patrol the waters of Pasuquin in Ilocos Norte for illegal fishers. Pante retired from the Marine Corps in 2002. His latest war has just begun. (Gregg Yan / WWF)
Retired Philippine Marine Corps Technical Sergeant Armando Pante is one of 20 new Bantay Dagat members. He will now patrol the waters of Pasuquin in Ilocos Norte for illegal fishers. Pante retired from the Marine Corps in 2002. His latest war has just begun. (Gregg Yan / WWF)

Last week, the retired Marine Corps Sergeant vowed to fight a new war – this time, to protect the seas of Ilocos Norte from illegal fishers. On 23 January, Pante and 19 other fishermen from the town of Pasuquin were deputized as Bantay Dagat or fish wardens – volunteers who patrol and protect Philippine waters.

The famed Bantay Dagat system began in the 1970s, augmenting government capacity to protect coasts. “Members are drawn from local fisherfolk who undergo three days of standardized training. Upon graduation, they are issued ID cards sanctioned by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and the local municipality, giving them a three-year window of authority to enforce the Fisheries Code when operating in their respective areas,” explains BFAR Fisheries Regulatory and Law Enforcement Division Head Mary Ann Salomon.

Thunder under the sea

Dynamite or blast fishing, which became rampant in the Philippines after the Second World War, is a highly destructive means of collecting fish. Powdered Ammonium Nitrate, kerosene and small pebbles are packed inside a glass bottle and covered with a blasting cap. New designs integrate long metal rods which absorb sound and act as sinkers.

Dynamite Fishing in Ilocos
Homemade bombs made from powdered Ammonium Nitrate, gasoline and shrapnel. The long metal bars are ‘silencers’ – thought to absorb and mask sounds while adding weight to the contraptions. (BFAR-R1)

The blast’s shockwave, which travels at about 1500 meters per second (the length of 15 football fields), kills or maims fish – sometimes liquefying their internal organs. Aboard boats or diving using hookah air compressors, collectors scoop scores of dead and dying fish. Obscured by wafting clouds of silt are the blasted remains of corals. All this takes under a minute. Recovery takes decades.

Section 88 of Republic Act 8550 or the Fisheries Code of 1998 prohibits dynamite or blast fishing. Even so, many Filipino fishers – driven perhaps by poverty – still use homemade bombs. A 1999 study by Rupert Sievert estimated that 70,000 fishers use the dangerous contraptions. Many are missing limbs due to accidents.

Fortunately, things are improving. “Better enforcement has proven to be an effective deterrent for illegal fishers. Enhanced education also creates a sense of stewardship for coastal communities to more stringently safeguard their waters,” notes World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Project Manager John Manul. “Who better to protect the ocean than those who rely on it for food?” Manul oversees a partnership between WWF and Century Tuna to protect vital fishing grounds in Ilocos Norte.

Held from 21 to 23 January 2015 at Barangay Naglicuan in Pasuquin, Ilocos Norte, the training was led by BFAR, WWF, plus representatives from the local and provincial governments of Pasuquin and Ilocos Norte. Modules on fisheries laws, gear, practices, apprehension procedures, plus dynamite-caught fish inspection were led by BFAR’s Mary Ann Salomon, Mario Racho, David de Guzman, Genesis Tadije, Roy Gonzales and Dante Noces, plus Arthur Valente from the Provincial Government of Ilocos Norte.

“This training shall hopefully curb blast fishing, which still takes place in Badoc, Bacarra, Currimao and other parts of Ilocos Norte,” shares Valente. More remains to be done as each day, fishers still heave their deadly bombs into the sea, pockmarking reefs.

But help is on the way. Each month, newly-trained Bantay Dagat volunteers take to the sea.

“Anyone we catch using dynamite will serve five to ten years of jail time,” says new Bantay Dagat member, Sergeant Pante. The grizzled Sergeant, plus 19 new fish wardens, will soon patrol the waters of Ilocos Norte. They issued a warning to illegal fishers. “Watch out – we’ll be watching you.”