Photojournalist and documentary photographer Jason Houston has spent over 20 years photographing community, culture, and how we live on the planet for editorial and NGO clients. His engaged, long-term approach to complex issues captures...
Efran Garcia throws baited crab traps back into San Miguel Bay. The fishermen set about 75 weighted and baited crab traps every 10 to 15 feet on rope, using a weight (usually a rock-bound up in fishing net) to hold it down at one end and a makeshift anchor (usually cut from the branching of a tree and bound with rocks) at the other. Efran and Santiago Camatoy pull the traps, hand over hand, aboard the boat where Rodel Bolaños collects and binds up the crabs, saves any edible bycatch tossing the rest back, rebaits the traps, and repairs any damage to the netting — all while navigating the boat keeping it aligned over the line of traps. A few hours later, motoring over a new secret spot, Efran throws the traps back overboard to sink once more to the bottom of San Miguel Bay. (San Miguel Bay, Philippines)
Ten years ago a trap this size might catch ten crabs. Today one in ten traps might catch a single crab. One day, we returned with just four marketable crabs out of about 75 traps. A good day now might be 20 to 30 crabs. (San Miguel Bay, Philippines)
Though Rodel Bolaños is involved in various programs to improve the sustainability of the fisheries in San Miguel Bay, compromises are still often necessary. Here Rodel buys bait from the by-catch of illegal seine net fisherman on the beach. (Mangcamagong, Philippines)
One of several projects run by the Caringo Island Women’s Organization is the 'lying-in' holding pens for female crabs carrying eggs. Named after the practice of a woman 'lying in' bed before, while and after giving birth, these pens allow crab fishermen to keep female crabs that are carrying eggs, while also letting these crabs complete their reproductive cycle before taking them to market. By waiting until they drop their eggs, the fishermen are helping local crab populations recover and balancing their need for income with the needs of nature. (Caringo Island, Philippines)
Rodel Bolaños meticulously handcrafts each crab trap. He precisely measures the lengths of rod for the metal frames, selects straight sections of split bamboo for the ribs, counts off the exact number of knots in the netting as he sews the sheet into a tube and stretches it over the frames, artfully tying knots in the cords that hold it all together. It seems overkill for something to be tossed into the sea, sunk in the mud, and beat by the currents, but he says the more careful he is, the longer they last. I suspect it also has something to do with pride in doing it well. He made about 20 traps in a week, working steadily on the process each afternoon. (Caringo Island, Philippines)
The Bolaños family has a boat, which is more than what most of the registered fishermen have in Caringo; Only 55 of the 200+ registered fishermen also have boats. The rest serve as crew on other boats or borrow from the several small paddle canoes provided by the local government. With a boat, the fisherman not only takes a larger share and more control over any fishing catch, but he also can run errands to the mainland, collecting fares for passengers and purchasing goods to resell at a premium on the island, which has no commercial service for supplies. Veniflor Bolaños, Rodel Bolaño’s daughter in-law, and his son, Ian Bolaños, hitch a ride on the boat as Rodel and crew deliver crabs to a broker on the mainland. (San Miguel Bay, Philippines)
Every three or four days, assuming the catch is good, Rodel Bolaño's crew transports the crabs he’s caught to Noal Cereza, a broker 45 minutes across the bay. The catch usually works out to about ₱1000/day ($21/day), out of which comes expenses, such as fuel and bait, before the remaining funds are split four ways: A quarter to each of the three fishermen and a quarter set aside for the future boat maintenance and repairs. (San Miguel Bay, Philippines)
Rodel Bolaños and crew sell crabs to Noal (cq) Cereza, a broker 45 minutes across the bay. The catch usually currently works out to about ₱1000/day ($21/day), out of which comes expenses, such as fuel and bait, before the remaining funds are split four ways: A quarter to each of the three fishermen and a quarter set aside for the future boat maintenance and repairs. (Mambungalon, Philippines)
Nathalie Bolaños stands among her father's crab traps. Nathalie, or ‘Tali as everyone calls her, is just over a year old, making Rodel Bolaños, at 43, an older dad. She is their fourth child and second daughter, and bounces happily from siblings to grandparents to neighbors to friends throughout the day, but she always gravitates back to daddy when he’s around. Instead of being exhausted managing a one-year-old in the midst of his busy day, Rodel often drops what he’s doing and regresses a few decades himself, baby-talking and dancing with ‘Tali. (Caringo Island, Philippines)
Caringo Island is a small community located in San Miguel Bay, about an hour off the mainland and completely off the grid. Just over 1,000 people live on the island in about 250 households, and about 90% of those homes are registered as fishermen. Families cobble together their livelihoods from fishing, as well as raising pigs and chickens, farming seaweed and coconuts, and providing various support services, such as small neighborhood sundry shops. One of two families own all the land in Caringo, though some properties have been granted to the community itself. Lots may be leased at about ₱100/mo ($2/mo) with additional expenses for electric: lights (₱10 or $0.21) and television (₱20 or $0.42). No unmarried individuals are allowed to lease property. The result is a warm and welcoming attitude, where neighbors, often related and almost always friendly, support one another and kids roam freely and play in the streets throughout the day. (Caringo Island, Philippines)
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Ronilita Bolaños (right) works with the Caringo Island Women's’ Organization on an enterprising seaweed cultivation project. The seaweed grows just offshore on the north side of the island, suspended on cordage in a grid of buoys and stakes. Every few weeks, the women trim and dry the extra growth to be sold for use in a variety of products, ranging from cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to ice cream. (Caringo Island, Philippines)
Emma Bolaños (background) watches over granddaughter Nathalie Bolaños while she naps. Nathalie, or ‘Tali as everyone calls her, is often watched by friends and family as her father Rodel Bolaños and mother Ronilita Bolaños work throughout the day. 'Tali is just over a year old. (Caringo Island, Philippines)
Rodel Bolaños tending his pigs. When Rodel Bolaños got married 20 years ago, he bought pigs to help supplement his family’s fishing income. In this town comprised of mostly fishermen, all working in the same overfished sea, raising pigs provides both food security and an alternate source of income. Today, Rodel keeps 14 pigs for which he can get ₱7,000-12,000 ($150-250) each, depending on whether he butchers and sells them at once to a broker on the mainland (wholesale) or butchers and sells them piece-by-piece locally (retail) to his neighbors. (Caringo Island, Philippines)
Dragging Illegal Fishing Gear Ashore to Be Confiscated. Official patrols happen maybe once a month. But Caringo’s fishermen watch for illegal activities every time they are out — some are even deputized to apprehend infringers. The patrol I joined consisted of a mix of seven men from Caringo and the mainland and at least four guns, including a shotgun and a submachine gun (though the firepower is more for show and authority than actual confrontation). Five kilometers out from Caringo, we identified two boats illegally fishing with trawling dredge nets and raced upon them. The deputies boarded the boats and escorted them back to Caringo, where officials recorded the infraction and confiscated their fish (worth about ₱250 or about $5) and their gear (worth a more significant ₱50,000 or about $1,000). (Caringo Island, Philippines)
Youth in Mambungalon, like youth everywhere, are more connected than ever to the larger world. The sustainability of nearshore coastal fisheries relies on commitment from the local communities -- a challenge when the next generation may no longer be interested in being fishermen. (Mambungalon, Philippines)
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Ice is the lifeblood of any fish port. The ice brokers sell carts of ten-cubic-foot blocks to the commercial boats. Local kids scramble as they scrounge chips to bag up and resell to retail buyers. Nearby, an elderly man picks up the last melting flakes to cool his single fish and a soda on the walk home. Ice is essential to the industry and community. Without ice, transport of fish is impossible, as fish cannot make it beyond the limited local market without spoiling. Access to ice provides fishermen the ability to grow their markets beyond their local brokers and potentially fetch higher prices for their catch. (Fish Port, Mercedes, Philippines)
Fish ports are hubs of activity and essential for the economy of the surrounding communities. They provide work for many more people than just the fishermen. Mercedes is in the midst of an official 30- year commitment to being “the center of excellence for fisheries in the Bicol Region where God- loving, empowered and healthy citizenry are living in a preserved and protected natural environment with well-planned and functional infrastructure and vibrant economy under a dynamic and transparent leadership where everyone adheres to the principles of sustainable development.” (Fish Port, Mercedes, Philippines)
An hour before sunrise, the Mercedes fish port is already packed. Small boats line the launch ramp while even smaller boats shuttle fish and fishermen from large boats, and buyers crowd around vendors for the first fish of the day. As the sun rises, activities turn from dragging totes of fish up the ramps to hauling everything from bait to batteries to big blocks of ice back down to the boats.It’s a romantic and energizing scene, exemplifying the role local fresh fish in life in Mercedes.But just below the surface, reality is somewhat less idyllic. Evidence indicates that we’ve severely overfished this ocean. Locals say fifty years ago, 300 big boats, each with 40 crew, would have crowded this port. And each boat had so many fish that fishermen usually dumped portions of their catch at the end of the day. Today, catches are smaller, both in quantity and in fish size, representing how we’re fishing down the food chain and catching younger fish. The larger, industrial boats no longer bring in the tuna or bill fish we used to see and the motley piles of small fish the smaller-scale coastal fishermen display show they are forced to simply take whatever they can eek from the ocean. (Fish Port, Mercedes, Philippines)
Image Library, Exhibition, and Video Art Commission for Rare
In September 2016 I spent three weeks in San Miguel Bay, Philippines. For about two of those weeks I lived with Rodel Bolaños and his family on Caringo Island.
Considered the center of global coral ecosystem biodiversity, the Philippines' waters contain almost ten percent of the world’s coral reefs, large swaths of mangrove forests, and more Marine Protected Areas than any other country. It also sits in the middle of some of the most heavily fished water in a critically overfished world, making it an important opportunity for understanding the threats and opportunities facing the future of our global fisheries. 91% of the fish caught in the Philippines stays in the Philippines providing 56% of the animal protein consumed by Filipinos. 1.4 million of the 1.6 million fishermen in the Philippines are small-scale and nearly half the fish caught in the Philippines is caught by these coastal fishermen. Still, in the 60 years between 1940 and 2000, the size of near-shore fishermen’s catch for the same effort has dropped by over 90%.
Rodel Bolaños lives on Caringo Island, Philippines, a small community located in San Miguel Bay, about an hour off the mainland and completely off-the-grid. Just over 1,000 people live on the island in about 250 households, about 90% of which are registered as fishermen. Rodel moved to Caringo with his parents and 6 siblings 30 years ago, when he was 13. They left the mainland looking for a better life and he’s been fishing ever since. Today, Rodel pieces together a living for his family fishing, raising pigs, and running a small shop out of their home selling sundries as well as pig and chicken feed. Rodel is also involved in Rare’s Fish Forever initiative to help improve the way the fisheries in San Miguel Bay are managed, including setting up protected areas as ‘no-take’ fish sanctuaries, patrolling for illegal fishing activities in regional waters, and registration of fishermen and boats to support future managed access programs.
The work including large-scale prints and a video art installation were presented at an exhibition hosted by Rare in New York City 9 days after I returned from Philippines and is one of the art installations at SxSWEco in Austin, TX in October.
For more information on this story and to see the complete portfolio, please contact me directly.