Young Fishers Literally Don’t Know What They’re Missing

A fisher drew the fish he perceived to have disappeared from catch on his palm. The fish was later identified to be the moonfish (Mene maculata). Cabugao, Ilocos Sur. Photo by Erina Molina

When fish and other seafood products are served on our dining tables, we rarely think about how these species landed on our plate—barely thinking where they came from and more importantly, how they were caught.

Since the Earth is covered mostly by water, people should acknowledge both how the ocean shapes human societies and how human populations threaten the ocean.

The Philippines is an archipelagic country, made of many islands and a lot of ocean, known to be the global epicenter of marine biodiversity. Its beautiful coral reefs boast diving spots considered by recreational divers to be some of the best in Southeast Asia.

It is also home to more than five million fishers relying on fish and fishery products as a source of food and income. In fact, Philippine coral reefs are known to support around 20 percent of the total marine fisheries production, while fish and fishery products provide 11.7 percent of the total Filipino food consumption. This makes the marine ecosystem a vital part of the country’s resources and one that could affect the country’s growth and development.

Fishers were asked what types of fish they perceive to have disappeared from their catches. Magsingal, Ilocos Sur.
Fishers were asked what types of fish they perceive to have disappeared from their catches. Magsingal, Ilocos Sur.

Logging more than a hundred dives in different parts of the Philippines, I have experienced the beauty of our coral reefs firsthand. I have come to appreciate different species of fish, corals, and invertebrates. However, I feel that my perception of how beautiful it is may already be different from the people who have seen it before.

This phenomenon is called the “shifting baselines syndrome,” wherein over time what we consider a healthy ocean changes as we accept a more degraded ecosystem as normal. This means that while the younger generations are celebrating the beauty of the ecosystem today, the older generations are expressing their remorse for the degradation of the marine ecosystem due to various human-induced disturbances including over-exploitation and illegal fishing activities, among others.

This phenomenon of “shifting baselines” was what my National Geographic Young Explorers grant project tried to explore in the context of identifying vulnerable and locally extinct reef fish species in Northern Philippines using fishers’ knowledge.

I interviewed a total of 305 fishers from 17 fishing villages. I also joined fishing trips as a way of immersing myself in the fishing community. I believe that fishers can be regarded as experts of the ocean. They don’t just live near the coast—fishing is their way of life. They depend on the ocean for their survival. Despite my degrees in Environmental Science, oftentimes they know more about the ocean than I do. And while there’s a lack of written historical data in the Philippines, the fishers themselves are a living source of information about past marine ecosystems.

Indeed, I found that fishers were able to detect many changes in the marine ecosystem. Generally, fishers perceived that fish catch declined through the years, but some fishers, especially the younger ones, claimed that fish stocks are stationary and not overfished. Older fishers, however, perceived that their fish catch strongly decreased since the time they started fishing. Here was the “shifting baseline syndrome” in action.

Fishers were asked what types of fish they perceive to have disappeared from their catches. Magsingal, Ilocos Sur. Photo by Glenn Barit
Fishers of many different age groups were interviewed. Magsingal, Ilocos Sur. Photo by Glenn Barit

Fishers also identified specific kinds of fin fish by name that have disappeared from their catches—including the bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum), which was also mentioned to have disappeared from catches in five other marine areas in the Philippines according to Lavides et al. (2016) and colleagues. Other fishers might draw a species they perceived to have disappeared from their catch—like the moon fish (Mene maculata) locally known as kadis.

The fishers are actually alarmed by what might happen in the future. They say that if they are catching less and less today, the future generations might have a hard time catching enough fish for their daily sustenance. It is therefore essential to convert this anecdotal evidence gathered from fishers into hard data that can be used to provide insights and recommendations for fisheries management.

Erina interviews fishers, Oscar and Arnold, about their fishing experiences. Cabugao, Ilocos Sur. Photo by Glenn Barit
Erina interviews fishers, Oscar and Arnold, about their fishing experiences. Cabugao, Ilocos Sur. Photo by Glenn Barit

In the feedback session of the project attended by artisanal fishers and local government representatives, Edgardo Lagasca, a village chief and a fisher himself said, “In the past, we can still see the fish in front of us. Today, we can only see it in pictures.” Indeed, conservation actions are needed in order to ensure the sustainability of our marine resources, or else the fish served on our plate today might be just a memory decades from now.


National Geographic is proud to be a part of The Economist Events’s upcoming World Ocean Summit, where Erina Pauline Molina and other National Geographic ocean explorers will present on critical research and conservation efforts. Readers of National Geographic enjoy a 20% discount off the standard rate. Please register here.

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Meet the Author
Erina is currently taking up Masters in Environmental Science at the University of the Philippines-Diliman. As a National Geographic Young Explorer, she did further research in the Northern part of the Philippines exploring on possible shifting baseline syndrome in the context of examining vulnerable and locally extinct reef fish species. She wants to use this anecdotal evidence from fishers' knowledge and convert it to hard data which will be useful in fisheries management.