What can the Philippines teach us about our fisheries?

A traditional fishing boat in the Philippines. Credit: Photo: Catherine Flessen

University of Washington Professor of Marine and Environmental Affairs Patrick Christie has done a lot of research in the Philippines — for which he is currently trying to marshall typhoon relief — and he has noticed one thing among many: People seem to feel a strong connection to Pacific Northwest fisheries. That might reflect the large number of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans who have worked in salmon canneries. Some of their struggles have made unfortunate headlines: Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo, the Filipino-Americans who were murdered near Pioneer Square in 1981, had been active in the cannery workers' union. And in the 1989 Ward's Cove decision, the United States Supreme Court found that Ward's Cove and other companies that packed fish in Alaska hadn't discriminated against Filipino and other minority workers even though they hadn't hired them for anything but poorly-paid jobs on the cannery floor.

Right after we spoke, I learned about another kind of connection between the Philippines and Puget Sound. A delegation from Palawan, the westernmost province of the Philippines, arrived in chilly Seattle last month as part of an exchange project called "Ancient Shores, Changing Tides." The project links museums here and in Palawan, and brings together people from the Palawan village of Sibaltan with the Suquamish tribe, which occupies the Port Madison reservation just west of the Agate Pass bridge. A Suquamish group will visit the Philippines early next year.

The Filipino delegation visited the Suquamish at the same time that the Burke was returning artifacts, excavated there in the early 1950s, for the tribe to display in its new museum. The ferry taking the artifacts from Seattle to Bainbridge Island was accompanied by an orca escort — a phenomenon the Burke and local media saw as a good omen. The two communities gathered at a salmon feed in the House of Awakened Culture, a longhouse-style building with massive carved posts on the site of Old Man House, a traditional longhouse that was burned down in 1870. The Filipinos listened as the tribal archaeologist explained that Old Man House had been 850 feet long. If fully occupied, it would have housed the largest single community on the Salish Sea. People had lived on the site for at least 2,000 years, he said, and probably 5,000.

That kind of antiquity is familiar to people from Palawan. Jun Cayron, the archaeologist who directs the Palawan State University Museum and is co-coordinator of Ancient Shores, Changing Tides, told me that excavations in the El Nido municipality prove that a fishing culture has existed there for 14,000 years.

The program's other co-coordinator, the Burke's Lace Thornberg, says the idea for the exchange program surfaced during a Phillipine dig she was a part of in field school. Thornberg was taken aback by the fact that local Filipinos seemed not to feel much connection to the work or to what it revealed about the history of the place in which they lived. The discovery obviously stuck with her. Several years later, when she returned to Palawan on a Fulbright, she helped build up the Balay Cuyonon, a local ethnographic museum in Sibaltan.

Her Filipino ethnographical appetite whetted, Thornberg wanted to link Sibaltan with a community on Puget Sound. It just so happened that the State Department was funding museum-to-museum collaborations through the American Alliance of Museums. Burke curator of archaeology Peter Lape, who works in the Philippines, suggested the Suquamish tribe as a possibility. After her second grant application, Ancient Shores, Changing Tides began to take shape. It would be a collaboration between the Burke, Palawan State University Museum, the Suquamish Museum and the Balay Cuyonon, intended to deepen each group's understanding of its own archaeological past and cultural heritage, and to develop sustainable, community-based tourism.

Done right, tourism can support traditional culture. Arvin Acosta, the tourism director of El Nido, the Palawan municipality that includes Sibaltan, says that tourists who want to watch people practice traditional occupations have given local laborers a new sense of pride. He hopes that this new prestige, plus income from tourists interested in nature and traditional ways, will help keep young people in Filipino villages. Acosta is afraid of winding up like the Japanese villages that have been deserted by virtually everyone except the elderly. He could just as well have been talking about small U.S. farming and logging communities.

Acosta's goal is to show locals that they don't have to choose between traditional occupations and the cash economy; that a man can keep fishing from his small boat in the traditional way, and also take a few tourists along for extra cash or to snorkel the reefs.

Both the snorkeling and the subsistence fishing require healthy fisheries. Villages can establish their own marine preserves, which Cayron explained to me that Sibaltan has done. But fish populations are still under siege from large vessels berthed in nearby Malaysia — which is closer to Palawan than is the Philippine capital of Manila — and Indonesia. And the fish populations are also hammered by fishers from nearby villages that haven't yet bought into the ideas of ecotourism and sustainability. Acosta is still trying to convince some locals to stop fishing with dynamite — a practice that has been outlawed, but is still holding on in remote Palawan. 

Artisanal fishing, Christie said, is under siege all over. The threats from government-subsidized foreign fleets — which menace subsistence fisheries in much of the Third World — are only part of the story. Well-meaning international donors can encourage overfishing, too. Christie said he hopes that international donors don't respond to the typhoon as they did to the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka — when they bought new, more effective fishing boats, which increased the pressure on fish populations.

But communities have some control over what survives in their own waters. Roughly a thousand Philippine villages have established marine preserves.

Here, while local groups have restored beaches and done watershed planning, the broader effort to restore Puget Sound has been hampered by a lack — or a perceived lack — of public understanding. Christie contrasts the approach here with that in the Philippines, where scientists feel freer to work openly for environmental protection, and community organizers rally people around environmental issues. People here talk about community attitudes without doing the social science research needed to find out what those attitudes really are. Bring 50 Filipino community organizers here, and they'd figure out the situation in a hurry, he suggests.

Of course, "it might all come crashing down. But things are crashing down the way we're doing it now."

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