I’ve always been a fan of superhero films. When I was young, I had the impression that all superheroes have superpowers, who were great people because they could leap across tall buildings in a single jump, read and control people’s minds, or change into any form they want.
When I started working for environmental organizations, I began to see that there were people in the different communities where I worked who showed that it doesn’t take much to become a hero, a real life superhero working for our environment.
A month after Oceana Philippines held its awards night and recognition for 11 nominees to the first ever Ocean Heroes for Tañon Strait, last June 8, I am still inspired by their stories of commitment, dedication, and passion to stop illegal fishing, and to protect and conserve marine resources and help rehabilitate ecosystems. They are ordinary people, if we can call somebody standing up against armed men ordinary, who have worked for so many years in their communities against all odds, and contributed to the protection of this 18-year-old marine protected area.
Oceana launched the Ocean Heroes Award “to recognize individuals who have consistently worked for the protection of Tañon Strait, fought against destructive projects and illegal fishing in the area, ensured enforcement of fisheries laws and protection of habitats and species, and inspire others to be an agent for change in effecting policies geared towards sustainable fisheries management in the protected area.” Winners were chosen from each of the provinces bordering Tañon Strait (Cebu, Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental) and a special award was given to a woman community leader.
The Ocean Hero for Cebu is Mr. Norlan Pagal, a fisherman from the town of San Remigio who became a staunch guardian of the marine sanctuary in his village of Anapog. He is married and has five children. He is a very active Bantay Dagat member who implements fisheries laws strictly. He is also a crusader against drug abuse. Because of these advocacies, he has received threats repeatedly and put his life on the line. He has been beaten with a paddle, a dynamite was thrown at his boat (luckily it didn’t explode), and he got shot at several times. Last year, on his way home from a fiesta where he had just given a speech, he was shot and he suffered a spinal cord injury. Since then, he has been confined to a wheel chair, but this did not stop him from pursuing his dedication to protect Tañon Strait. With the continued support of his family and fellow fish wardens, he still goes to the seashore every morning to ensure that no illegal fishing happens in their marine sanctuary.
The Ocean Hero for Negros Occidental is Mr. Roberto Quigay, from San Carlos City. A true leader for small fisherfolk, he is a member and officer of various fisherfolk organizations and once headed the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council. His dedication to the welfare of his fellow fishers led him to develop various projects and programs for livelihood to support their members, as well as the establishment of marine protected areas in San Carlos City. As an expert on fisheries laws and issues, he has become the go-to guy for researchers and agencies coming to San Carlos who want to know more about coastal management in his part of Tañon Strait. He is also very active in enforcing the law, joining regular patrols to make sure illegal fishing is stopped in their waters.
There were three women finalists for the Ocean Heroes Awards, with the top prize going to Mrs. Veda Raunillo from Guihulngan City. She is a fish warden, leader and member of various fisherfolk organizations, and is also the Fisherfolk Provincial Director for the province of Negros Oriental. A proud mother and wife, she performs her duties to her family with as much zeal as she pursues her advocacy, looking after the welfare of fishers in Tañon Strait. She has led and joined various activities such as patrolling and mangrove planting, and has helped develop livelihood projects to alleviate poverty in her hometown. Despite experiencing threats because of her involvement in enforcement activities, she has continued to lead fisherfolk organisations in stopping illegal fishing in Tañon Strait.
The Ocean Hero from Negros Oriental sadly passed away before the awardees were announced. I met Mr. Oliver Dayupay in Ayungon in March this year when we were conducting a demonstration and pilot-testing of Vessel Monitoring Mechanism or VMM, a device that is now required by law to track fishing vessels. When we asked for volunteers who would be willing to pilot test the VMM, he was among the first to step forward. Back then, I could already see that this is one person who is willing to do everything to ensure that fisheries laws are implemented. I met him again a few weeks before the awards night to interview him about his planned project “in case he wins.” At that time, the judges had already made the decision but we wanted to keep his victory a surprise. I informed him that he’s a finalist, and seeing him smile and knowing he had a chance to get recognized as an Ocean Hero was priceless. When he was discussing his proposed project, his selflessness shone. He wanted a goat-raising project for his fellow fishers to address two issues: livelihood, and to minimize pressure on our depleted coastal resources.
The other nominees are heroes in their own right as well. As one of the judges said: “It was very difficult to choose because we know all of them have contributed in their own way to ensure that Tañon Strait and our marine resources are protected, but we had to choose only four winners.” The selection process proved to be so difficult that the judges had to reconvene and break the tie for the nominees in Cebu.
A few weeks after the awards night, our Ocean Heroes have returned to their respective homes. It is inspiring to see how the media has written about the event, giving well-deserved and long overdue recognition to our real-life superheroes. In fact, Mr. Pagal has been approached by several organizations for possible assistance after seeing the news about him winning as an Ocean Hero.
Our Ocean Heroes are also now in various stages of implementing their projects, which will be funded by part of their prize money from the awards. It is heartening to know that they have also gained a lot of encouragement to pursue their advocacy because of the recognition they got.
So the next time we hear about superheroes, I hope we also remember that it doesn’t really take much to become a hero. As Mr. Pagal said when he was speaking in front of students in Cebu City: “When your heart and mind are one and you are guided by principles, then it will never be hard to dedicate your life to saving the oceans.”