Written by Dr. Georgia Holly, Post Doctoral Researcher at the University of Edinburgh, and Edinburgh Marine Archaeology Natural Heritage Specialist

Shalom (pictured above) spent her childhood fishing with her father in the ancestral waters of Gutob Bay, Busuanga, in the Philippines. At sea, the pair would practice a mix of modern and traditional fishing methods such as Bira-Bira, a traditional method of catching squid with lures made from the jackfruit tree. Now, Shalom explains how her community and others have been pushed out of their traditional fishing waters by the pearl farming industry (visible in the background of the above picture): a fast growing, resource heavy industry dominated by Japanese, Chinese and Manilla-based Filipinos.

The process of pearl farming is simple, but resource use (in the form of land and time), is heavy. Cultured oysters are suspended from rafts across acres of ocean. On average, it can take up to 3-4 years to grow a single pearl, and around 85 pearls are needed for a single 16-inch necklace. Large swathes of ocean are developed into pearl farms, which in the Philippines, can be acquired in the form of 25-30 year renewable water leases. In Basuanga, three pearl farms have expanded into the ancestral waters used by five Barangays, including IP (indigenous peoples) and coastal communities.

Pearl farms are marketed as a lucrative alternative to Marine Protected Areas ‘MPAs’, advocating environmental protection through community exclusion. To maintain this ‘no-take’ quality, the farms conduct strict patrolling of area boundaries, and community entry is either refused, or strictly limited to morning hours. As such, the ancestral domain and associated traditional practices of the local and IP communities are severely and actively restricted.

Arriving at the Depelenged IP Community, one of the many island and coastal communities affected by the pearl farming industry © Georgia Holly 2023

Within Shalom’s lifetime, these restrictions have already significantly impacted the stability, livelihoods, and identities of the local IP and coastal communities. Historical navigational links between island communities have been severed, and traditional fishing methods such as Beetot (octopus fishing using stone and cloth), Bira-Bira (squid fishing), Bobo (bamboo traps), and spearfishing cannot be conducted. Although allegedly citing consent from the local people, coastal and IP communities argue that this was not the case, alleging that their ancestral waters have been illegally acquired. Few studies have been conducted on the impact of pearl fishing on the people who depend on these waters, and no known considerations have been created in management plans for these groups.

Now, Shalom works with C3 Philippines to establish equitable, community-centred marine protected areas which consider ecological conservation alongside community heritage, biocultural heritage, and livelihoods. Part of the work between C3 and Edinburgh Marine Archaeology on the Darwin Initiative funded project, specifically looks to engage with the marine cultural heritage of the indigenous communities affected by threats such as these, through mapping community heritage resources in ancestral waters, and translating traditional ecology and heritage knowledge within customary and municipal management plans.