The Philippines has one of the most diverse underwater ecosystems in the world with a 3.3 billion dollar fishing industry, 15% of fish caught in the Philippines are caught by coastal fishers and 85% are small scale. More than 1.6 million fishermen and their families rely on coastal waters to supply income and sustenance, fishing is a hugely important aspect of the Filipino economy. On assignment with the Be Siargao team, we interviewed some of the local fishermen to gain an insight into this traditional way of life. Little did we know, it would lead us on an unexpected adventure….

Part 1 - An Interview with Lary and Lito

Though Siargao is most famous as a surfing paradise, its waters boast incredible biodiversity, with a particular abundance of blue marlin and tuna, making it a game fishing hot-spot in the Philippines.

One scorching hot summer afternoon, the Be Siargao team wandered down to the far side of Purok 1, where the highest number of fishermen in General Luna reside. We approached a group of fishermen taking shelter by their fishing boats and took the opportunity to find out more about a life very different from the surfing, island hopping and parties normally associated with General Luna.

We spoke to two brothers, Lary 34 and Lito 32 who have spent their lives in their community. They spoke of their childhood, which was mostly spent out at sea learning the trade from their father and grandfather, who started taking them out on the family fishing boat from a very young age. Since childhood, the brothers have followed the same routine day after day, waking at dawn to be on the waters by 6am and returning around 4pm.

The life of a fisherman is simple, but by no means easy. “Many fishermen here have died at sea over the years” says Lito. “If we take the boats further out, it’s very dangerous. The weather can change very quickly. If a storm comes when we are fishing far out, it can take up to 3 hours to return to the shore. We often have to risk going straight through the eye of the storm as it would just take too long to go around the outskirts, exposing us to other risks.” The brothers tell us that the conditions in the morning are better, however in the afternoon the weather is more unstable.

Lito expresses that the number of fish has significantly decreased over the past 10 years, meaning that despite the dangers, the fishermen are having to travel further and further from home for increasingly smaller yields. “In 2005, each fisherman would easily catch 10 pieces of blue marlin in a day, now 2 or 3 is more likely. If we catch just a few marlin now, we feel lucky.” 

Overfishing is a worldwide problem at present and affects developing countries such as the Philippines more than others. Because the amount of fish caught daily (in the tons) is more than what can be naturally replenished, we are losing more and more fish. According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), in 2013 alone there were around 93 millions tons of fish caught world-wide.

When asked about the future of the children in the area (some of whom were curiously observing this interview), the brothers tell us that not all aspire to be fishermen these days. You put your life at risk every under the baking hot sun, with the possibility that you will return with no fish. The younger generation are now looking towards working in other industries. The booming tourism industry on the island has opened up an array of new job opportunities, such as working as a bartender, waitress or tour guide, to name a few. “Also, some of the children don’t like going out on the boats because they get sea sick” mentioned Lito.

The tourism industry has also presented new opportunities for the existing fishermen. In the morning, if they decide that it’s a bad day for fishing, they take tourists out island hopping. “In fact, many fishermen now use their boats for island hopping full time instead of fishing” the brothers tell us. This isn’t an option for all though, as island hopping requires a bigger boat than the traditional fishing boats, which in many cases have been passed down through generations.

Lito comments that the life island hopping isn’t much different from the life of a fisherman, “the income still isn’t consistent. No fish, no money, no tourists, no money.” Same same, but different. For the most part, Lito thinks that tourism is good for the locals, “the new generation have more options and opportunities for making a living here in Siargao.”

Blue Marlin is the most prized fish in the waters of Siargao. The fishermen in Purok 1 mostly sell their catches to the market by the boulevard: blue marlin is being sold at P180/kg while tuna is P120/kg. 

Something that really sparked the team’s interest was Lito and Lary’s talk of their occasional activity of night fishing. “Sometimes a group of us will go out night fishing. There are more fish around at night, and bigger fish” They go out in bigger groups at night for safety and also because they catch the fish by compressing them with one net between the boats. Following our sense of adventure, the team asked if we could join them sometime…

To be continued..

Part Two - A Night Fishing Expedition

Little more than 24 hours after our interview, we found ourselves waiting in curious anticipation by the fishing boats in Poblacion 1, ready for a 12 hour night fishing expedition. We arrived feeling completely unprepared with just one rain jacket between the four of us and an ample supply of 2 peso-a-piece pan de salle. We arrived at 5pm and were greeting by some children from the area and a few adults, who all wanted to know if we suffer from sea sickness, to which we all tentatively answered ‘no’. Lito and his companion Joel arrived shortly after and gestured towards a tiny fishing boat in red and white. Before we knew it, we were wading out into the unknown. With Olga and I perched on some beams, Matias, our photographer, atop the fishing net and Steve, our translator, leading the pack at the front. We sailed away from General Luna on the smooth-as-glass water, but this time the boat went straight past Guyam and Daku - there would be no island hopping today. Instead, we headed towards the pastel pink hued horizon. It was a fairy-tale picture of fisherman’s life. 

Initially after docking, the rose-tinted journey continued as we ran our hands through the water, which left an iridescent trail of sparkles from the bioluminescent plankton in the water. The darkness was otherwise only broken by the moonlight and the fishermen’s gas lamps, which are used to keep track of the end of the net. 

Eventually, the romance of it all began to fade and the harsh realities of a fisherman’s day-to-day life unfolded. Lito and his friend started reeling out several kilometres of net, all by hand. The lamps drifted further and further towards General Luna until, around half an hour later, they were nothing but flickering specks on the horizon. By the time the fishermen were satisfied with the span of the fishing net, the four of us had taken to the nets on the outriggers of the boat and were (in my case anyway) barely able to speak for fear of vomiting pan de salle into the Pacific Ocean. While none of us had ever particularly suffered from sea sickness before, the motion of the waves were hugely intensified on this tiny fishing boat. I fixated on the only stationary object I could find, the moon, however my head was still spinning and in the end I could only find comfort through closing my eyes.

Not only were there some problems with the Be Siargao team, no sooner had the fishermen finished reeling out the net, they had to pull it all the way back in as it had curved, meaning it would be no good for catching fish. I was struggling just with the task of lying down, never mind pulling in several kilometres of cumbersome fishing net by hand, only to have to start over again. I couldn’t help but think how much more difficult this would be under the heat of the midday sun.

Then, the dreaded words. “Rain is coming”. Our small fishing boat had absolutely no shelter and we had only one rain jacket between us. Despite the darkness, we could make out an ominous rain cloud approaching from the distance accompanied, even more unsettlingly, with flashes of lightning. A couple of hours in our nausea had subsided a little, so we sat on the outrigger of the boat in silence, expecting the worst. Even though it was approaching midnight at this point, it was still swelteringly hot, so the light rain felt pleasantly refreshing. After a few minutes (or an hour, who knows), the rain passed and the waters became still again. We were lucky.

Once the intensely hard work of throwing several kilometres of net out (and back in, and out, again) the fishermen still did not stop to rest. “There are lots of squid here”, they told us as they bought out a simple fishing rod. Sure enough, before long there was a bucket full of squid, which they can sell for 100 peso/kg at the market. The fishermen did not sleep throughout the whole night, they told us that they never sleep as they must stay alert at all times. The four of us, on the other hand, all took a reasonably long nap. We were woken up in time for the big reveal - the night’s catch.

For the second time, the tiresome task of reeling in the net began. We watched in sleepy anticipation. We were all excited by the first catch, a tuna, which proved to be tiny in comparison to the two mahi-mahi that followed. “No more.” Lito said as they got towards the end of the net. To their surprise as well as ours, there was one more fish to come – a blue marlin! It was my first time to see this impressive species, with its spear-like beak. The fishermen were happy with the catch, enthused, they asked us if we were okay to stay out for a few more hours and moved the boat for the second catch of the night.

By time we had found a new spot, we were well into the depths of the night. We braced ourselves for a much nastier looking rain cloud, however luck was on our side once again and we got away with just a light spattering of rain. All of the Be Siargao team spent a good deal of the time dosing while we were waiting for the second catch, which in the end was unsuccessful. Still, the fishermen were happy with the night’s efforts. I’d had a couple of hours nap on the outrigger netting (basically a really unsteady hammock..) and no longer felt so nauseous. Our expedition finished on a high as we enjoyed a spectacular sunrise sail back to General Luna with a tuna, two mahi-mahi, a blue marlin and a bucket full of squid. We walked, rather unsteadily, through Poblacion 1, which is alive with activity at 5.30am. There were fishermen setting up their nets, children playing and laughing and adults playing guitar on the side of the street. As we waded through we were eagerly greeting by the community with their beaming smiles, dying to know, “did you vomit?” to which we could all proudly say.. no! (Although, it was a close call for me…)

The life of a fisherman is simple, and in many respects beautiful, but it’s by no means easy. They put themselves in danger each time they go out against the ever-unpredictable elements.

Many thanks to Lary, Lito and Joel for their kind hospitality and the unforgettable adventure.

Cover photo by Fredrik Öhlander from Unsplash

This piece was originally written for Be Siargao's print edition