Everything started with the coming of the zippers. Behemoths of steel and mesh, they scraped the ocean floor between the port of Hagnaya and Bantayan; encircled the waters with nets over 100 meters long, the surface equivalent of a standard soccer field.
The fishing vessels, also known as Danish seines, dragged a line of fine nylon for kilometers, capturing whatever they could scoop at the bottom—tons of fish, coral reefs, sea grass. A winch hauled up what would normally take a hundred men, then bundled them together like a drawstring bag.
One minute the fishes were there; the next they were gone.
Jonathan Alon worked for one of the 3,288 zippers scouring the island when he met Marilyn Jumawan in Bantayan. When the zippers arrived in the mid-’70s, seiners like Jonathan brought in an average of 3.1 tons of mackerel and anchovies every day. The ocean seemed too vast for humanity to consume; reports of vessels overturning from the weight of their catch excited investors. It meant they could go on to build the next vessel, and double profits next year. To Jonathan, it only meant that he was finally secure enough to find a wife.
He pursued Marilyn for months, visiting the general merchandise store where she worked. She rejected him early on and told him to find someone else—Marilyn had plans for her family before she could pursue her own. He persisted with dates at Plaza Rizal, sonata nights at the disco, and fresh catch in a cellophane tied to a tree in front of the store. He told her he didn’t need to be loved back, for now.
When Marilyn became ill, she went home and left her employer and Jonathan without word. Not knowing where she lived, he searched for her in nine barangays until he arrived at Sitio Kalubihan in Barangay Tami-ao, finding a stick of a girl lying on a banig in her parent’s shack. Unsure of whether she was going to live or die, he asked for her hand anyway, taking advantage of her inability to argue. He said, “Huwag kang matakot. Magtiwala ka sa akin.” She did.
They were married on February 19, 1998, at the church of Saints Peter and Paul along with 40 other couples. She was 17. He was 18.
Makeshift gear fashioned by the fisherfolk. Bottom right: the lone photo of the Alons that Marilyn was able to salvage from Typhoon Yolanda.
Jonathan left his work as a seiner, trading in his three-ton catch for an average of just five kilograms a day. The new father wanted to be with Marilyn and Jonalyn, their firstborn. He taught his new wife everything that he knew about the sea, even as he himself needed to revive his own kinship with it. Jonathan grew used to employing fish-finders, sonars that picked up underwater movement like the tornado of a hundred thousand mackerel; it made even the most unskilled of fishermen a rockstar.
He taught Marilyn how to control her breath, find abundant grounds, and fish in the ways his father before taught him. Every fisherman has a specialty: Hook and line. Squid jigs. Fish cages. His just happened to be the spear. If the Alons wanted supper, Jonathan need only go knee-deep in water with iron rod in hand, and wait for an unaware marlin. It was hayahay, an easy existence. Dreams may be hard to come by, but the fish was always easy.
Then again, they can also be elusive. We arrive with a monsoon trailing from the mainland. Nets and polyethylene screen cages are abandoned around the coastline. Bancas that borrow names from sea gods— Poseidon, Neptune, Oceanus—are docked meters from the shore, providing the only contrasts to a white curtain formed by outbreaks. There used to be talk of color-coding boats once, but that idea was quickly discarded. For now, there’s a clash of garish marine paint colors bobbing in the ocean. Shorelines are empty because fishermen know this with surety—when storms arrive, the fish leave.
“The market looks really small,” remarks our photographer Sonny Thakur after rounding Bantayan’s commercial complex. What he expected to be a busy outpost with labaseras grunting from the weight of shrimp, squid, and fish so fresh they still writhed with life is, in reality, a semi-abandoned building. There are five rows meant to serve as stalls; two of them are empty. The smell of offal, rotting gills and intestines, permeates the air. New catch from rogues who battled rain and wind arrive at the docking stations. They barely reach the complex when a middleman gets first dibs, selecting the ones to be exported to Italy, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
“Nakalabas na ang isda namin. Kami nandito pa rin,” jokes Rico Sebillano of Stall No. 5. His wife Daisy slices the belly of a three-foot bawo, its stomach bloated with eggs. A buyer looks in delight at this 2-in-1 promo. She can sauté the roe—caviar in some parts of the world, bihod in these parts—and have the meat for soup. Other than this, there is barely enough subject for Sonny’s camera to focus on.
There would’ve been nothing unusual in this scenario except that Bantayan happens to be the Fishing Capital of the Visayas. (Others opt to call it the more grandiose Little Alaska of the Philippines.) So, where did the fish go?
The sea is so tightly knit to Bantayan’s earliest narratives that, as an act of both cunning and goodwill, Pope Leo XII gave the island an ecclesiastical dispensation called an indult, a papal excuse letter, if you will, allowing locals to eat meat during Holy Week. The archbishop merely wanted able-bodied men, many of whom were fishermen, to concentrate on building his church. Whatever catch brought in by the brave fed the elite. The rest turned to pork. The indult expired years after the church Jonathan and Marilyn were married in was finished, but locals are quick to forget.
Every summer, the island finds itself, a little hesitantly, in the limelight for this oddity. In recent years, it has learned to play up to the cliché outsiders have culled for it: island paradise. Repeat it often enough and even locals will believe it. To residents, it had seemed nothing more than a trio of lethargic coastal municipalities—Bantayan, Santa Fe, and Madridejos— with fabled seafood that altogether sounded like an animist’s chant. Miroy. Litob. Tikob. Bunsod. Subagyo. Sunogan. Sikad-Sikad. So, the thought of a fishing capital without fish? It seems a badly delivered punchline.
The loss may have come in phases; some say all at once. The only thing for sure is that in a span of twenty-five years, Bantayan went from having enough life underwater to sustain the Visayas, to importing fish for daily consumption all the way from Southern Mindanao. Even environmentalists were slow to read symptoms—the decrease in yield, lengthening of lean seasons, disappearance of usually abundant species like the krusan, crabs with pincers that equaled the length of an outstretched arm. They have since been diminished to an old folks’ tale.
One year, there was an abnormal increase in crown-of-thorns, predator starfish that covered the surface of the corals, sucking nutrients until the prey’s demise. This went unnoticed until a whole bed became a boneyard of skeletons. Without enough fish as natural predator, the starfish would claim the seabeds. All signs led to overfishing. But who’s to blame?
The fishermen of Bantayan are notorious for breaking every rule in the Bureau of Fisheries and Agricultural Resources’ handbook. Environmental activist Atty. Tony Oposa—himself a Bantayanon from Barangay Okoy—used to raid the shoreline, serving appeals to residents to move their houses to meet the 40-meter easement. He invaded nearby islands too—Hilantagaan, Botigues, Lipayran—targeting the homes of those who buy abnormal amounts of ammonium nitrate in agri-stores. By itself, the chemical is a tame fertilizer. Mixed with gunpowder, it turns into dynamite.
Mainlanders still feel the distant shake of the earth when the blasts come. They happen mostly in the middle of the night when the Bantay Dagat are off duty. Atty. Oposa has been in too many green conferences to know that the body of water he grew up with, however giving, has changed. But as a resident, he doesn’t need the statistics to tell him what he already fathoms. They were fishing faster than the ocean’s ability to replenish.
According to Greenpeace, 80 percent of Philippine waters are overfished. Figures like these usually desensitize rather than shock, especially when faced with the urgency of daily needs. The most direct way is to ask them to look down at their plates. Doesn’t that fish look particularly juvenile? But if you ask fishermen like Junior Bauto of Barangay Kaongkod, he’ll say “Why blame the small folks?” They still lived in shanties; still substituted danggit, a valuable stock in these parts, for instant noodles. You can report them, but what happens to the family?
Zippers have been banned in municipal waters for years now. Vessel owners insist that the island is just mere point of origin, and that they travel farther towards open areas like Panay and Masbate now. Junior doesn’t believe them.
The sea is so tightly knit to Bantayan’s earliest narratives that, as an act of both cunning and goodwill, Pope Leo XII gave the island an ecclesiastical dispensation called an indult, a papal excuse letter, if you will, allowing locals to eat meat during Holy Week.
There are different types of fisherfolk. Those like Jonathan and Marilyn believe in the fatalism of islands; then there’s Junior. He’s a radical of sorts around these parts; police and rogue fishermen alike suspect him to be a vigilante. “Dinamitahin nalang natin lahat sila,” he says with a half-grin, half-grimace. Enemies, those who use cyanide or dynamite in islets, have resorted to barang just to get him off their backs. But Junior laughs it off. “Pag malakas ang tiwala mo, hindi ka madadatlan.”
A Guardians tattoo rests between his thumb and forefinger. This minute detail, barely a quarter of a centimeter, is telling of where Junior’s cavalier toughness comes from. The Guardians, he explains, were civilian informers of the military during the Marcos regime. He wasn’t afraid of a dictator then; why should he be afraid of a couple of petty thieves now? “Isa sa mga araw na ‘to, lulunurin ko talaga yan sila,” he says as he sits on the veranda of his pink house—pearly columns, and scallop shells shaped like flowers—presenting pictures of fishermen from far-off islands pillaging someone else’s buhi-buhi, fish ponds that attracted pricey pelagic fish like the marlin.
Together with his comrades, Junior roams the blue, collecting photographic evidence of goliath vessels. He dreams of one day slamming these photos on the desks of officials who’ve ignored him. In the meantime, he busies himself with boat upgrades and asking his kids, mostly engineers, how to use a GPS and camera phone. All grown, they have, more than once, asked him to stop the rah-rah. They tell him, “Pa, huwag ka nang makialam.” Junior is peeved by their sensibilities.
“Sinabihan ko sila, ‘Hoy, ulol, nabuhay kayo dahil sa dagat. Bigyan natin ng oportunidad yung iba naman makinabang.’”
A meal of mixed seafood at Marilyn’s place; Baliad, a mollusk that requires fishermen to dive 60 feet underwater to collect.
Junior's pearly pink house, new and barely lived in, is a byproduct of November 13, 2013, when Bantayan became Typhoon Yolanda’s fourth landfall. Fishermen like Junior and Marilyn watched small flits of clouds called kaliskis ng buwaya form in the horizon the day before the storm came.
Coastal residents have learned to read the sky long before they learned to read storm warnings: They knew that kaliskis ng buwaya appearing for two days straight, or a sea snake sticking his head out of water meant only one thing. Abnormally strong winds were coming.
But not like Yolanda. Nothing like Yolanda.
When the hour ended, the wind tumbled their houses made of amakan inland. All appliances—a TV, refrigerator, karaoke set—went along with it. Boats went the opposite direction. They were pulled to open sea—hulls broken, masts damaged, engines lost. Each fisherman lost an average of P15,000 in equipment. Not to mention the nets stolen, pigs they grew that went astray, and months, and months, of lost income.
In the wake of the storm, researchers from Project NOAH studied the peripheral fishing grounds. Individual catches dwindled from five kilos to two. Species that once thrived on the Eastern seaboard migrated to the West. Sand and shoreline shifted overnight.
The storm brought—along with a surge of babies named Yolanda—an acute check and balance; that there might have been problems long before the winds even came, maybe it isn’t the island paradise it once thought. The NOAH researcher delivered an airy comment to the organizations of fisherfolk that day, one of which was Junior, a federal president.
In the aftermath, it wouldn’t take six days for the seas to recover. It would take six years.
The only comfort perhaps is that islanders seem to follow a more intuitive measurement of time and distance, not akin to any unit laid by city dwellers. Usa ka dupa is the measure of a water’s depth from the tip of the right hand to the left. Singkwenta ka mata is the number of holes in a square foot of net webbing. Isang isla pa is what is said to travelers when navigating through turbulent expanse for two hours.
So, six years after a cataclysmic storm? Blink of an eye.
The rest of Bantayan index their lives to what is before, and after, Yolanda. For Marilyn, there’s before, and after, Jonathan. Doctors told them it was acute kidney failure. He talked about other things too; diuretics and blood potassium, dialysis and transplants. All the Alons knew was that they didn’t have the means to cross to the mainland. He tried to hide the symptoms but Marilyn saw her husband was having a hard time. He labored over simple chores—cleaning the front yard, getting water from the well, washing their underwear—things he liked doing for his girls, now four of them, unmindful of ribbing that these were women’s tasks. His body was sustained by a lot of dextrose. There was a sea inside of him. He left his fishing gear, hammer, and saw with Marilyn. She uses her inheritance to fashion a fence out of foraged sticks. They would prove useful to her, especially after two break-ins, long after he had gone.
Neighbors would make light of the matter, “Ngayon alon(e) na talaga sya. Alon na alon.”
There are days like these, days when an island can’t support a livelihood. So, in the wake of another storm, where were the fishermen, and what do they do when they can’t go out to fish?
The restless ones, like Junior, believe that a fisherman’s work is never done. He sets about stowing gear, making nets, concentrating on the meticulous synchronicity of nylon and needle in his hand. This is therapy. His mind quiets down for a time.
It’s a tall order for fisherfolk to grasp the complicated meanings behind technical jargon like sustainability and marine conservation these days, as if the whole island is on hyperdrive to recover what has been lost. There is talk about rehabilitation, restoring its status as island paradise.
Junior, along with other federal presidents, have been on the forefront of strict implementation of a fisheries management plan. The operative word is “strict,” something Junior challenges government bodies to uphold. He has been to the police, the mayor’s office, and the Bureau of Fisheries in the last few weeks. He asks them, “Ibigay nalang kaya ninyo yung mga baril sa amin? Kami nalang ang magpa-patrol sa dagat?”
Junior insists the system is flawed to begin with. The Fisheries Code of the Philippines was amended in 2015. Still, concepts there like catch ceilings, closed seasons, and marine sanctuaries are dangerously unspecific, allowing deviants to be let off with bail as low as one thousand pesos. In Junior’s reality, what needs to be accounted for are his fellow fishermen with guns, dynamites, cyanide, and zippers that stray into municipal waters.
Then there’s the lack of a formal study of how much fish Bantayan’s fishing grounds actually has. How can folks determine how much should be caught, or not caught, when data are calculated guesses at best? You can’t count fish that’s still in the water; you can only count the catch. Commercial vessels get out on this technicality, on the insistence that there is still so much life underneath. They just haven’t been counted yet.
Junior will take that up another day. Right now, he’d rather focus on his nets. Winds from the west creep up causing involuntary shudders. With weather like this, there’s passable alibi to warm the body.
A duo coming from a failed fishing excursion sits on their boat parked a couple of meters off the shore with two gallons of murky-orange tuba, fermented sap from coconut flowers. As invitation, they bring out two gallons more from dry compartments along with a pot of rice and stewed fish prepared by their wives. “Dito muna kami. Uutusan lang kami nila pag nasa bahay.”
There has been a rise of diabetic cases lately. Many blame it on the popularity of tuba or ono-por-ono, a shot of Tanduay chased with a shot of Coke. Bantayan, they say, consumes more alcohol than mainland Cebu and Bohol combined. It’s the currency of escape.
The storm brought an acute check and balance; that there might have been problems long before the winds even came, maybe it isn’t the island paradise it once thought.
Marilyn is now 38. She has traded in her waif-like physique, immortalized in the only photo left of her and Jonathan at the entrance of her house. His absence has brought out a swimmer’s frame: Wide-set shoulders. Defined deltoids. Thick calves. A fluorescent cross dangles on her neck, complementing the neon orange of her nails. She is a woman meant to withstand the ebb and flow of the waves.
High tide approaches at midmorning. Marilyn walks towards the direction of a marine sanctuary until the water is waist-deep; she puts on an antipara of her own design, ties a basin to her waist, and dives. This was the same basin she used earlier in the day to wash her children’s clothes. These days, she seesaws between the two roles. Domestic figure and provider. Mother and father.
There’s a thud in the basin. She has just caught a crab. Then another, and another. She does not stop until she collects half a kilo in two hours—three sea cucumbers, one mudfish, a handful of shells, and crabs. This makes one meal. She doesn’t mention his name as often now, preferring to use “siya” or “yung asawa ko.” And every time a memory returns, she stabs a clump of sea grass awash on the shore with the rod. Sometimes she listens to Junior’s speeches in the resort where she moonlights as masseuse. He talks about securing the future, but Marilyn’s vision is more short-range. She just wants her youngest child to finally be able to dress herself, and her second to keep her school supplies after using them. Jonalyn, now 21, has children of her own that she needs to help support, too.
Marilyn is not sure if Bantayan still holds the answers, but it’s an island she cannot leave. She takes the short walk home, crossing a coral cliff and dirt path before going out of the highway. With wet clothes still clinging to her skin, she prepares the kindle, drops the crabs in the pot with rock salt and nothing else. How deep did she go to get these? Not that deep, she says, using an islander’s approximation of time and distance, around tulo ka dupa.
When she finally settles in the doorway beside the picture frame, she tells us what she misses about him the most.
“Marunong ’yun maghanap ng trabaho.” She scrubs the algae off the shells, cleans the sea cucumbers for ceviche, as she talks about the sea he knew all those years ago. She holds on to that and an ocean that she hopes is too vast for humanity to consume.
This story was originally published in GRID Volume 02.