Fish Warden Training (Gregg Yan & WWF-Philippines)Watch out, stubborn dynamite fishermen, Sarge  is keeping an eye on you.

Sgt. Armando Pante  (Gregg Yan & WWF-Philippines)Retired Marine Corps Sergeant Armando Pante 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.  ‘Sarge’ to his troops, Pante 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.

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.

jowrDynamite 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.

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 pulverized 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.”