May 11, 2023
Climate change drives poverty incidence in fishing communities even higher for those whose livelihoods are highly dependent on fisheries. Small-scale fisherfolks in the Philippines are among the poorest of the poor in the Philippines and they depend on the fishery resource for subsistence. Fisherfolks catch fish so they could buy rice for their family. With limited financial capital, most of them get loans to buy fuel and ice before heading out to the sea. However, climate change has made the weather unpredictable—too windy, too stormy, too hot—affecting their fishing schedule. If there is a typhoon, they cannot fish for a week as they wait for the waves to calm.
Rising sea surface temperatures also impact the availability of dissolved oxygen and food for underwater species, resulting in limited to zero volume of fish catch. If they cannot go out to fish because of poor weather conditions or catch enough fish for even just a day due to extreme heat, their family will have nothing to eat, the cost of ice will become a sunk cost, and they will become even poorer.
The climate crisis will make it difficult for us to achieve zero poverty and food security. When fisherfolks cannot catch enough fish to feed their families, they may resolve to conduct illegal practices to survive. They will try to catch fish in marine protected areas, use fishing nets with smaller mesh net sizes (so they can catch even juvenile fish), and use chemicals to make it easier to catch fish. While incidences of illegal practices have lowered in recent years as a result of policies and campaigns against illegal fishing, we cannot totally avoid the return of illegal practices plainly because the fisherfolks need to survive.
In addition, if the fisherfolks have no income, they will not have funds to support their children’s basic education and fund their family’s needs for health and well-being. If the climate crisis is not resolved, it will be nearly impossible for the Philippines to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
Lastly, sea level rise (SLR) has been observed by the fisherfolks. If SLR continues, our fishing communities will have to migrate to safer areas and may end up losing their livelihoods because of migration.
A person will only act on what they know. In the study I conducted from 2019 to 2020 for my master’s degree, I found that fisherfolks rarely know about the word “climate change.” But upon asking them about their observations on the weather and their environment, they were able to describe how different these are compared to 10 years ago or even beyond that and they associated these changes mainly with pollution, particularly from the manufacturing industries and vehicles. This, to me, is a surprise because very few know about the term climate change but they know who’s to blame.
To the best of their knowledge, they adapt to climate change by keenly watching or hearing news about the weather, observing the level of the sea, and securing their boats and belongings whenever there are typhoons. Some of the men and women engage in alternative livelihood activities such as tricycle driving, construction work, and selling food and other items to ensure they still have income in the absence of fishery catch. If the day is too hot, they drink water and stay indoors whenever possible. Meanwhile, mitigation is limited to proper waste segregation, minimal use of plastics, recycling, and the planting of trees, potted plants, or shrubs as they believe these help regulate the temperature in their communities.
Through the help and facilitation of the national and local governments, fishing communities have also become active in coastal clean-ups, protecting marine species (e.g. turtles), and joining mangrove planting activities.
In my opinion, the number one assistance fishing communities need is participatory action planning workshops to increase their knowledge about the climate crisis and help them determine ways to respond to it. Secondly, they need to upgrade their fishing vessels from fuel-powered boats to clean energy-powered ones. If we also want them to get out of poverty and diversify the livelihood of fisherfolks, then we have to start integrating them into the fishery value chain, where our fisherfolks will not only rely solely on fishing to get by. They will also be trained to process, market (online marketing in particular), be involved in the logistics of their products, and eventually enter not only the domestic market but also the export market. They may also transform their fishing communities into eco-tourism areas that incorporate nature-based solutions that combat sea level rise and help mitigate climate change.
Many things can be done to empower fishing communities. The government and non-government organizations may help fund and facilitate these projects while the academe can help provide evidence-based decision support systems in identifying the best ways to build climate resilience in fishing communities.
In the past year, I have been working on research projects on Socio-Ecological Production Landscapes and Seascapes and Nature-Based Solutions to help build disaster-resilient and climate-smart communities. Part of my work is to increase awareness of the various impacts of climate change on both production landscapes and seascapes, in a ridge-to-reef fashion, to enable the municipal officers and local communities to first acknowledge that what happens in the upland has impacts on lowland and coastal areas. Through my talks, I share with them the unseen impacts of climate change on the fishery sector as a result of population pressure, deforestation, and the intensive use of chemicals in agriculture. I also help them realize that they can be part of the solution to the climate crisis through the small acts they can do at home and in their communities, such as minimizing the use of plastics, supporting tree planting initiatives, segregating and lessening their waste, and using eco-friendly light bulbs, among others.