Braving the cold waters of Balayan Bay in Batangas over the holiday season, a group of fishermen who have worked in the sea all their lives were suddenly uncomfortable in the water, as they found themselves fumbling with unfamiliar equipment and trying to remember recently-learned breathing techniques.
The fishermen were Bantay Dagat (Sea Watch) volunteer group members who were undergoing basic training on SCUBA diving. The group consisted of 13 Bantay Dagat members (11 from the town of Mabini and 2 from the adjacent town of Tingloy), who were certified as open water divers after the training. From this group, six were also selected to undergo additional training for advanced diving.
The training was intended to enable the Bantay Dagat to monitor divers’ activities and promote responsible diving. The Bantay Dagat of Mabini has been helping to protect the waters of Batangas against illegal fishing activities for almost a decade now, and has been largely successful at it. However, destructive fishing activities are no longer the huge problem that it had once been. These days, one of the greatest threats to the waters of Balayan Bay and the Verde Island Passage are not dynamite or cyanide fishing, but something that can be just as destructive: irresponsible diving.
In the past several years, the town of Mabini has grown to be one the country’s most popular dive spots, largely owing to its rich coral reefs and proximity to Metro Manila. However, this tourist boom, while providing great benefits to the local economy, is also contributing to the destruction of marine resources because of the irresponsible activities of some divers.
Coral damage and even vandalism have been observed in the popular dive spots, indicating carelessness on the part of divers. Dive boats also cause damage when their anchors scrape the seafloor. Divers have also been reported to collect marine specimens such as aquarium fishes, sea cucumbers, and seashells during their dives.
“If tourism is to be sustained, the quality of the reefs should be maintained,” said Romy Trono, Country Executive Director of Conservation International-Philippines, which initiated the scuba diving training in partnership with the Mabini local government.
Currently, no active policing of diving activities are done, and Bantay Dagat members are mostly confined to checking whether the divers have secured and paid the necessary dive passes. Once they have been trained and certified as open water divers, however, Bantay Dagat members can conduct spot checking of divers’ activities and help monitor the condition of the coral reefs in the diving spots and marine sanctuaries. The Bantay Dagat fishers, who also sometimes moonlight as guides in the many resorts in Balayan Bay, can also help reach out to resort owners and their customers in promoting responsible diving.
PADI Course Director Alvin Nacu said that the fishermen, while initially intimidated by the diving equipment and the learning modules that they had to study, were eager to learn and exhibited great improvement as they went through the course.
The Bantay Dagat members were also looking forward to applying their new skills in their enforcement activities. At the conclusion of the training, the newly-certified divers signed a pledge committing to promote divers’ etiquette. After many years of patrolling marine sanctuary boundaries and scanning the horizon for signs of illegal fishing activities, the Bantay Dagat volunteers are now ready and eager to go underwater.