By CHRIS V. PANGANIBAN
CORTES, Surigao del Sur--- Fishersfolk of this wide coastal town have been collectively guarding their rich marine sanctuaries and fishing grounds with heartfelt dedication.
No wonder this once virtually unknown town gained national prominence when it became the first grand winner of sustainable coastal management competition besting other finalists in the efforts in protecting and conserving their marine environments.
Endowed with 56,000 hectares of municipal waters which is much larger than its 13,059 hectares of land area, the residents’ commitment to safeguard their marine preservation areas (MPAs) in recent years made them as the grand winner of the Malinis at Masaganang Karagatan (MMK) 2016 initiated by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).
Cortes Mayor William Angos, a lawyer and an accountant, received the citation from President Rodrigo Duterte during the awarding rites in Malacanang on March 7 this year. The municipality of Cortes received P20 million prize which will be used to continue their marine conservation program.
Angos, a true-blue marine conservationist who is a scuba diver and mountain trekker, admitted he confronted a big challenge when he became mayor in 2013 on how to deal with conserving their marine resources while most of the residents remain poor.
“I was confronted with conservation as a social problem. Unless we address their hunger pangs, the fishersfolk would always be tempted to intrude into our marine sanctuaries,” Angos said.
In the last four years, the local government has embarked on a no-nonsense awareness drive to residents on fishery laws and regulations while engaging the fisherfolks to tightly guard their municipal waters against all forms of illegal fishing activities .
Angos, who disclosed it was just accidental when he entered local politics in 2013 while spending a vacation in his hometown for a diving spree, said the first two years of strictly enforcing fishery laws was crucial since it was met with cold reception from fisherfolk and resistance from illegal fishers.
The campaign became successful with the help of Vincent Dueñas, a fellow of an NGO called RARE Philippines who later became Municipal Coastal Resource Management Officer, when he spearheaded a community-based campaign through peoples organizations in the sustainable management and enforcement of MPAs in the 12 villages of Cortes.
The campaign involved fisherfolk, couples, students and even out-of-school youth to become integral part in activities to improve biodiversity in the coastal areas of their respective communities by reducing at least 95 percent of the intrusion of spearfishing and fine-meshed net with scaring devices within the no-take zone.
Dueñas said this can be achieved if residents have a sense ownership of the MPAs and are involved in the governance and enforcement.
Angos said they are bent on institutionalizing the campaign with an increase awareness especially to their fisherfolk to become their credo in their daily routines while fishing the seas that is facing the Pacific Ocean.
According to BFAR study, the coastal areas of Cortes support abundant and diverse ecosystems of coral reefs, sea grass beds, mangrove forests and soft bottom environment that are habitats of a wide variety of fishes and invertebrates. The coral reefs of Cortes are most likely among the largest in Lanuza Bay with an estimated area of 2,780 hectares. Its seagrass beds and algal flats are estimated at 1,500 hectares while total area of mangrove forest was recorded at 330 hectares.
Cortes, though relatively a small municipality, is the major supplier of fresh seafood and first class fish in the Surigao del Sur including bangkawan (mottled spinefoot), kitong (Goldspot Spitefoot), langub/talakitok (Trevally/Jack), gangis (Horned Surgeonfish) and tangigue (Spanish Mackerel).
Using the multi-sectoral stakeholders approach, the town council has crafted several significant local fishery policies and regulations including the 100 percent registration of all local fishermen with ID system, registration of yellow-coded boats and gears and the establishment of Coastal Resource Management Office complete with qualified staff and officers.
Already, education and awareness on marine conservation inculcated to residents in all walks of life were best displayed during the recent week-long Kalogatan Festival 2017 when a pageant dubbed Ultimate Fisherman Champion (UFC) represented by each village includes a question and answer portion where contestants were asked about their knowledge on marine biodiversity and fishery laws.
The same approach was applied in a separate color coding quiz show at the municipal gym where selected residents were given multiple choices on red, blue and white lines for the right answer of the questions.
A special award was also given to the best village and peoples organization for the outstanding implementation of MPAs in their respective areas which went to Barangay Burgos and Kadagatan Ampingan Pagmata Katawhan (KAAMPAKA).
Angos said they are now shifting to human development concept as key to sustainable marine conservation for this year’s entry to national MMK competition.
The concept dwelt on developing a sustainable coconut farming and eco-tourism industry so that residents could also engage in other progressive livelihood activities.
Dueñas, who is the main consultant of the mayor, said coconut farmers will be introduced with the ideal organic farming system using mykovam soil-based biological fertilizer developed by University of the Philippines –Los Baños.
Angos said he will develop different eco-tourism livelihood programs to showcase the Laswitan Lagoon which already attracted local and foreign alike during the Amihan season (Northeast monsoon that occurs between November to February) because of the waterfall-like effect when big surf of waves from Pacific Ocean lambasts the rock formation.
He is also working on a municipal fish landing port project in the village of Tigao where he projected a 300 to 500 percent increase in local revenue collections.
“I am already worried of the resources of our seas that the time would come on the vicious cycle of overfishing,” Angos said to explain about the need to take on their holistic livelihood approaches to address the basic needs of the residents.
He wanted to quit politics when his term ends in 2019 so he could focus more on financial needs of his family now that he had two children entering college by that time. “ I don’t have messianic tendencies,” saying he don’t want to stay longer as their town’s leader to be regarded as the residents’ savior from heaven.
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