From Dusk Til Dawn: A Night at Sea with the Tuna Fishers of Occidental Mindoro

May, 31 2024

Mamburao, the capital of Occidental Mindoro, is home to many marine attractions and coastal sceneries. Along with these, the municipality comes naturally blessed with marine resources that its people depend on for their livelihood. The municipality has thousands of registered and licensed fishing boats. Even more are the fishers who operate these vessels and who benefit from the vast number of species that thrive within its waters.
Bisecting the urban center of the municipality is the Mamburao River, a snaking body of water originating from the lower fringes of the Abra De Ilog municipality and opening all the way towards the Mindoro Strait. It is here at the mouth of the river that fishers dock their boats and drop their catch. One can see fishers and their companions lounging in the shade, discussing last trip’s haul or tomorrow’s expedition. Around the harbor, children would play and chase each other, zigzagging through the wooden boats docked or floating along the river’s mouth.

The boats themselves come in all shapes and sizes. Some are skiffs, small boats able only to hold one or two fishers and their requisite ice boxes. Others are huge basnigs, commercial bag net fishing vessels that can hold a crew two digits strong, able to stay at sea for weeks at a time. Municipal boats are surprisingly well-equipped. Aside from the main cargo hold where tuna and blocks of ice are stored, there is ample space to lie down. There is a propane gas tank and a small stainless-steel wok, where fishers cook their food while out at sea. There are plates, utensils, mugs, and a kettle. Instant coffee is aplenty – manna to keep the sleepiness at bay as they toil through the night.

In between these are vessels that come in different sizes, fashioned for different purposes – built to a standard shaped by history and tradition. Almost all have katig, wing-like bamboo outriggers jutting from the sides of hulls to help keep them stable, a ubiquitous feature of Philippine boats.

March is the beginning of the hot, summer months. Mamburao in the afternoon is thick with salty humidity and the sweltering heat that seems to hang oily in the air. Gentle waves lapped the corners of the moss-riddled concrete steps on the side of the Mamburao River as bags and equipment are hauled over the unstable plank that connects solid ground to the municipal boat. It is a few minutes past 4 PM as the boat sets off for sea. 
The captain, 46-year-old William Balquin Jr., steers the boat out of the harbor, gripping a battered steering wheel and nimbly navigating the waves. The engine blares noisily as the boat picks up speed. The structures that dot the coastline of Mamburao begin to recede, melting into the horizon.

In an hour, the boat is out in the open sea and the waves begin to lash out in earnest. Salty spray batters each passenger’s face as the boat slices through the rough waves. Balquin checks his GPS with his right hand as he drives with the left, navigating with the coolness of a seasoned veteran. Another hour and twenty kilometers from shore, the boat sputters to a stop. The sudden halt, and the rocking of the boat in the twilight sun all serve to give off a disorienting, nauseating effect. At the back of the boat, someone is forced to wretch. Further down, one of the crew follows suit, betraying no hints of nausea or discomfort. They begin moving mechanically, each knowing what they should do. Ramil Ramos, a crew member, sets the “parachute,” a large tarp-like implement dropped in front of the boat to help align it with ocean currents.  A whirl of activity commences as the last rays of the setting sun blanket everything in darkness.

In a moment, lights are turned on, with the generator powering them emitting a constant hum in the background. The crew sets about catching squid to use as the main bait for yellowfin tuna, a major source of income for most anglers in Occidental Mindoro. With a piece of wood, Ramil stirs the surface of the water, creating ripples that reflect the bright fluorescent lights so attractive to squid. He has already found time to change clothes, switching a thin shirt for a thicker one. 

“It gets cold out here at night, better to wear warm clothes,” someone declares. Meanwhile, clad in a black long-sleeved t-shirt, Balquin prepares the crew’s dinner. Amidst the rocking of the boat that makes moving around difficult, he moves fluidly, with natural, instinctive ease as he cuts squid into portions, preparing garlic, green chilies, soy sauce, and vinegar - the telltale ingredients of a squid adobo. This was the first part of the night – dinner before work began in earnest. “This is actually late for dinner, it should’ve been prepared already,” he comments, eager to start. Fishers work against the clock since yellowfin tuna are most active during the night, somewhere between 1 to 5 am. Dinner is served and eaten quickly, spicy squid adobo over steaming white rice, the freshness of the squid unparalleled. Barely a few moments after, Balquin stands, washes his plates and utensils, and starts going from katig to katig to resume setting up squid baits. Catching yellowfin tuna is a time-consuming process, they say, and out at sea, the night passes by way too quickly. 

Most tuna fishers do not pack bait with them, preferring instead to catch them live. With squid parts hooked and ready, they tie long nylon lines around smooth, round rocks to be used as sinkers. To further attract the tuna, they lower the bait with a helping of ata or squid ink. With a flick of the wrist, they drop the rocks along with the bait and nylon tied around it; the length of the nylon varies to increase the chance that a tuna from different depths would bite. Sacks of round rocks and bottles of ata are in ample supply, for tuna would rarely be caught on the first try. After a time, fishers would pull back the nylon, and look for any bites or nibbles on the bait. They repeat this process until they have caught enough tuna or until their supply of ata and rocks is exhausted, “This is our job. Our livelihood. There’s nothing we can do,” laments Balquin, a father of five and with 33 years of experience under his belt. “I do hope that every time we go out to sea, we bring home tuna. If not, we make do with whatever small fish we catch. This is risky because we might go bankrupt.” 

This is the unseen dance of attrition, disappointment, and monotony that dominates the nights of so many fishers in Occidental Mindoro. The hours of waiting with no guarantee of reward. “Sometimes it takes us five days. Sometimes just two, if you’re lucky,” Balquin continues. 

Overfishing and changing ocean temperatures have drastically altered the fishing landscape in the Mindoro Strait. Whereas before, fishers would not have to venture far to haul in a week’s worth of catch in just three good days, now it has become necessary to venture up to 40 kilometers and spend a week at sea to earn enough from one fishing expedition. With the rising costs of basic goods, mounting debts, and the financial investment associated with every fishing trip, fishers in Occidental Mindoro are taking more risks than ever.

“When you go out to sea, you have to accept the fact that you already have one foot in the grave,” shares Ramil. Compared to his colleagues, Ramil is a relative latecomer, already 26 years old when he first started fishing. The now 33-year-old has a shy, quiet demeanor. Quick to smile and undoubtedly hardworking, he provides for his wife and children through fishing. He relates stories of other fishers gone missing, their boats crashed and spirited away during fierce ocean storms. “I say goodbye to my kids before we go because sometimes we’re out at sea for 8 days.” He stares at the pitch-black water. “I don’t want my kids to have this kind of life.” 

With the fishing community’s reliance on a singular commodity in Occidental Mindoro, the competition is only set to be fierce. Seasonal factors already make yellowfin tuna stock fickle, but commercial fishing is an added challenge. To counter the economic strain caused by this tragedy of the commons, WWF-Philippines has set initiatives to help tuna fishers earn more from their catch by improving their product’s quality and post-processing practices so they may lessen post-harvest losses. Similar efforts have also been put into place to promote income diversification through the introduction of viable alternative livelihoods and to empower women to manage these new opportunities.

“I tried other jobs, like driving tricycles for a living.” relates Balquin. “But fishing is the best option. It’s great sometimes. When you manage to catch multiple big tuna, you’re immediately set. You go home then, no need to stay at sea for a while.” It’s 2 am, still sometime before sunrise. He’s preparing new baits and hooks while continually checking over the half a dozen or more already set and waiting. Simple handline fishing is a sustainable method for catching fish. Its highly selective nature allows fishers to catch only target fish species, albeit slower than other methods.

As the winds die down and the crew takes turns resting, there’s still no tuna in sight. Peering by the side of the boat, the horizon’s visibility is broken by the darkness beyond the boat light’s reach. Two or three floating lights break the darkness, an indeterminable distance away, signifying other tuna fishers are at sea as well, trying their luck. 

Onboard, the night ticks by. Ramil spends most of the night alternating between prow and stern, capturing smaller pelagic fish and the occasional squid or two while Balquin inspects and reattaches the nylon lines, trying out different areas and different depths. They traverse the wet floorboards and the slippery katig without difficulty. “Everyone starts out afraid and nauseated, but you get used to it,” both say with easy smiles. 

“WWF has been with us for many years; we’ve formed a bond,” tells Balquin. He speaks of the partnership that blossomed throughout a decade of workshops, seminars, and initiatives between the team and the Mindoro Strait fishing community. “We always try to attend the training sessions provided by WWF,” he adds. He might not see it yet, but the simple act of showing up could gradually amplify his community's voice. There is hope in knowing the efforts of WWF-Philippines’ Sustainable Tuna Partnership program are matched with the same commitment by the community it serves. One can only wish that even when the project bids goodbye in December, the fishers’ social commitment will endure so they can continue to effectively advocate for their needs and interests on their own. But the work continues. 

Fisherfolk empowerment undeniably has a long way to go. Yet, the stories and results of dedicated efforts bring a promise of hope. More than a decade's worth of work has led to substantial progress, much like the achievement of the prestigious Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Certification in 2021. As long as fishers like Ramil and Balquin continue to champion the cause of sustainable fishing and actively participate in community empowerment, there remains a chance for a thriving and sustainable fishing community and industry in the country.

As night ends, there’s been no sign of tuna. No nibbles. No false starts. Soon enough, the dark gives way to dawn. The nylons are retrieved; ata and sinkers are stored away. The “Parachute” is tucked aside. They have to make do with their small catch of squid and big-eye scad. Steam floats from fresh mugs of coffee as the sun’s first rays lick the horizon, announcing a new day. For the fishers, their day was over. The engine roars back into life, its sound almost deafening after a night of softly lapping waves. Captain Balquin takes position while the others sit and watch the horizon, their faces inscrutable. The two-hour trip to shore begins. This is what it’s like, they say. This is why it takes them days and weeks at a time just to make ends meet. Back on shore, they’ll spend time with their families. They’ll sleep. Then all too quickly, set for sea again.  

This article was produced with the financial support of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of WWF-Philippines and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

*WWF-Philippines continues its Sustainable Tuna initiatives in Occidental Mindoro today through the Sustainable Tuna Partnership (STP2), funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Project Buhay, a European Union SWITCH-Asia-funded project. WWF-Philippines has offices in both Mamburao and Sablayan.

For more information, please contact:

Ms. Joann Binondo
Overall Program Manager, Sustainable Tuna Program

Ms. Melody Melo-Rijk
Project Manager, Project Buhay
Ramil Ramos, 33, sets the “parachute,” a tarp-like cloth set in front of the boat that helps align it with ocean currents.
© WWF-Philippines/Jonah Kayguan
Ramil Ramos (left) and boat captain William Balquin Jr. (right) inspect their kawil, simple handline gear used to catch yellowfin tuna and other species.
© WWF-Philippines/Jonah Kayguan