From big fish in a small pond to small fish on the coral reefs
Since the first day of my Peace Corps Response journey, I’ve had to strip away everything I once thought I knew about serving abroad and start over.
For two years I lived in a mud hut in Zambia, where I fetched water from a spring near manmade tilapia ponds, biked several kilometers each day just to get vegetables for my dinner and spoke a language that most of the world doesn’t even know exists. Five months ago, I left it all behind to move to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. I went from feeling parched in the middle of a completely landlocked country in sub-Saharan Africa to floating adrift on a seemingly endless sea as an islander in the western Pacific Ocean.
I arrived in the Philippines in May 2015, just two and a half weeks after closing my service in Zambia. It was exciting, and crazy to think that I was starting another service so soon. Everyone always asks the soon-to-be returned Peace Corps Volunteer if he’ll serve again, and usually the question is met with a “yes, but not for a really long time.” But here I was, taking the plunge again.
Adapting was difficult, but adapting comes with the job description. I arrived at my site and immediately began my service as a Coastal Resource Management (CRM) Officer for Peace Corps Response. It felt like all the stress of preparing for a new service was off of my shoulders and I was going back to a life I knew.
As a CRM Officer it is my duty to create and implement a five-year coastal resource management plan for my province and municipality. My duties include conducting surveys with local fisher folk, stakeholders, and community organization members in order to obtain current information on the resources that they use (fish, invertebrates, mangroves, etc.) and then figure out ways to protect and maintain them. We visit farms dealing in agriculture, aquaculture, and aquasilviculture, assess mangroves, and teach stakeholders how to live and work sustainably throughout their projects.
After conducting site visits to the six local marine protected areas (MPAs) and conversing with members of the community, we decided to apply for a Small Projects Assistance (SPA) grant through the Peace Corps in order to fund the construction of several coral nurseries and artificial reefs.
The province in which I volunteer was greatly devastated by Super Typhoon Yolanda (2013) and Typhoon Ruby (2014), which destroyed homes, farmlands, forests and reefs. Coral is a living organism, which can take decades to recover after a typhoon hits. Many corals break into small fragments and are either tossed over the edge of the reef, where it is too dark for them to photosynthesize, or are covered with sediments by wave action once they reach the seafloor, which eventually kills them. The destruction of coral also severely reduces the amount of shelter in which juvenile fish can take refuge from predators, which also leads to a decrease in overall fisheries production.
Through the use of our SPA grant, we have constructed three mid-water coral nurseries, which can hold more than 500 coral fragments. The fragments are suspended on ropes using zip-ties, where they can receive optimal sunlight and nutrients to help them recover. Once the coral fragments have grown to a suitable size over a span of four to eight months, members of the people’s organizations will remove them from the nurseries and place them in better-suited, safer areas on the reef. This way, when a typhoon strikes again, the newly attached coral fragments will have been relocated out of harm’s way.
In areas that do not have many places to reattach coral, we have constructed several artificial reefs. These structures serve two purposes: to provide shelter for fish and invertebrates, and to create more areas for coral to attach itself. We locate large areas of sandy sea floor, about three to four meters deep, and build the structures out of cinder blocks in an igloo-type formation. Because these structures are built within the boundaries of the MPAs, they provide perfect habitats for juvenile target species such as grouper, snapper, and lobster to mature safely without being caught by fishermen, and also help to establish an area where the newly-attached corals will not be disturbed.
The goal of this project is to help increase the fisheries market in our municipality, as well as significantly reducing the reefs’ recovery time after a typhoon hits by rehabilitating the broken coral fragments. During the course of this project, I’ve come to realize how people in different walks of life want to help their environments. They just need the resources, and knowledge, to make it happen.