License and Registration, please. PLEASE!

Note: I’m writing this as an ecologist with limited experience studying and understanding the governance of resources.  This is not meant to be authoritative, but rather, is based on my impressions.  Please let me know (nicely…) if I sound foolish.

Do you know how many fishing regulations you just broke?!

Earlier this week, I saw this news story posted by Oceana.  It’s about a Rare conservation fellow (great organization!)  in Lanuza, Philippines, working with the local mayor on a loan program to help local fishers cover the cost of registration.  The plan outlined in this story is like a real-life manifestation of my nebulous daydreams for solutions at my field sites in the Philippines.

It’s fantastic (at least, to my relatively naive and inexperienced eyes).  It helps get fishers registered and encourages them to use alternative livelihood practices to help repay their loan.  And it is a safer alternative to unscrupulous, higher-interest lenders (I actually just interviewed a barangay captain who mentioned exploitation by such lenders as a major problem in his community).

Fisher registration is an important step in proper fisheries management, for several reasons:
(1)  It allows those in charge of monitoring and enforcement to easily identify who is fishing in their waters (and who should and should not be).
(2) It serves as a source of revenue for local governments, and often that revenue is allotted to monitoring and enforcement.
(3) It can make a nebulous network of fishers “tighter” – it provides management bodies with information to better reach local fishers with outreach programs about fishing regulations.
(4) Similarly, it benefits the fishers – as with #3, it can improve the availability of other programs aimed at helping fishers, and could be a source of funding for such programs (and, of course, better regulated waters should benefit fishers in the long-term anyway).

PAO's boat

PAO's boat - properly registered (see numbers near bow)

Yet at my field sites, as in Lanuza, many fishers can’t afford the registration fees.  (This is also mildly inconvenient for researchers, as inaccurate lists of the number of fishers can mess with your household interview sampling plan…but, I suppose that’s not so important in the grand scheme of poverty and resource protection).

Of the sites where I’m working, Malampaya Sound seems to have the most dire need for a plan like this.  The major complaint by fishers is rampant illegal fishing by local fishers; many of these illegal practices are small-scale (e.g., non-commercial fishing boats dragging gillnets, which is illegal because it’s considered an “active gear”, banned by national regulation).  The Protected Area Office (PAO) should be the main entity responsible for monitoring and enforcing fishing regulations.  However, as I’ve written elsewhere, they are unable to fulfill their duties due to a lack of funding and personnel.  Though the lack of funding reflects several deeper governance issues, one obvious problem is that registration fees are supposed to contribute to the operating funds of the PAO.  The rate of registration in Malampaya is very low, and thus, the contribution of registration fees to the PAO is negligible.

If you're fishing without a permit, the purple avenger will come find you. Unless you don't buy a permit, because then she won't have fuel for her boat...

Which makes for a bit of a tangled situation: the PAO is in charge of enforcing fisher registration.  But, the PAO cannot properly enforce anything unless it has enough funds.  It is unlikely to see a significant increase of funding unless revenue from registration increases.  There needs to be some catalyst – like the loans program described above – to break out of this cycle.

I just want to stop the madness

At my other sites, in Guimaras* and Negros Occ., many fishers remain unregistered as well, but the bantay dagat (sea police) are relatively well-funded, and the main complaint of fishers here is illegal commercial fishing, often sponsored by wealthy companies based in other cities.  The main perceived threats to their marine ecosystems, therefore, are commercial boats coming from “outside”.  As such, registration of local small-scale boats won’t necessarily directly address those issues.  In these cases, fisher registration could help fund programs to aid fishers in other aspects, perhaps by strengthening fisherfolks’ associations and giving them more of a voice in policy-making, and training for alternative livelihoods.

Unfortunately, my more immediate life objective is to collect data for an academically rigorous PhD dissertation, rather than dedicating the time and effort needed to launch programs like this.  And, of course, they would never succeed without buy-in from the local government (which, depending on the place and people involved, might actually benefit directly from lax environmental enforcement…).  But I’m going to keep this idea alive and well in the ol’ noggin…

More importantly, I’m going to open discussions about this with my collaborators at my field sites – these are people who are much better equipped than I am to implement solutions, and I hope that they will find a way to inspire the right people.


Guimaras oil spill (photo from This schoolgirl may now be a registered fisher...

* Side note about Guimaras: There was an oil spill there in 2006.  Compensation was to be offered to all registered fishers thought to be affected.  Predictably, registration skyrocketed, such that one of the barangay I visited was listed as having 84 fishers.  I met the barangay captain and was confirming those numbers: “So, there are…50 boats here, and 84 fishers?”  He looked at me like I was nuts.  “At most – at most – we have 15 boats.”  I showed him the copy of the Agriculture Office’s report.  “Ah!” he laughed, “Yes, many fishers registered all of their family – including children – as fishers, also.”  NB: Oil spills are not a recommended method for encouraging fisher registration.