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Multiple disasters can’t stop stewardship of Philippines lake

December 27, 2022

Living on an active volcano carries risks, to say the least, but it’s been an especially trying few years for people along the shores of Taal Lake.

The lake fills the large caldera of the Taal Volcano and is the Philippines’ third-largest lake. It’s home to a unique ecosystem that supports many species, including the tawilis, a freshwater sardine found nowhere else in the world. The fish is an exceptionally tough species—after all, it evolved in a world of eruptions and sulfur emissions—but a few years ago, its numbers were in steep decline due to overfishing and invasive species. 

Local fisherfolk knew their livelihoods depended on keeping fish stocks healthy, and voluntarily banned fishing in a key spawning ground for the little fish. Seacology began a partnership with fisherfolk and a local conservation group in 2015. The goal was not only to keep the tawilis fishery healthy but also to look out for the health of the entire lake ecosystem. 

A typhoon had recently battered the Taal Lake Conservation Center, a community building in Barangay Kinalaglagan, leaving the roof severely damaged, the water system destroyed, and the kitchen flooded. With a Seacology grant, our partners made repairs and upgrades, and the facility was soon back in operation. For several years it provided a place for the fishers and local conservationists to process catches, hold meetings, and teach visitors about the lake and its geography and wildlife. To take pressure off the tawilis fishery, the center offered alternative livelihood training for members of the fishing community.

But then disaster struck. Twice.

On January 12, 2020, the volcano in the lake erupted, blanketing the area in ash and altering the landscape of the small volcanic island in the center of the lake. Tens of thousands of residents had to flee; 39 people lost their lives. 

The conservation center survived intact. But just a week after residents were allowed to return to the area, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Philippines, bringing lockdowns and severe economic hardship. As revenue dried up, our partner organization was forced to cease operations. For several long months, the fishing cooperative members barely made ends meet with emergency aid from the government and civil society groups.

Prior to our project, the Taal Lake conservation center had been severely damaged by a cyclone.

Today, the building has been reinforced and enclosed to protect it from the elements.

The aftermath of the 2020 eruption.

The coastline of the lake today.

“It was a double-whammy for the communities,” said Ferdie Marcelo, Seacology’s field representative for the Philippines. “Food was scarce. Quarantine was imposed and only one person per household was allowed to go out. That posed a problem for a lot of people.” 

But the community’s steadfast commitment to sustainable management outlived the worst of the pandemic. Neighboring villages established their own no-take areas in the lake, protecting nearly 3,000 acres of key habitat. They are installing buoys this month to mark their boundaries. The annual moratorium on fishing in April and May is still in effect, and the results speak for themselves: The increase in fish stocks more than makes up the revenue lost during the closed season.

The conservation center is still being improved. New glass panels now enclose the front of the building, improving security and protecting the interior from the elements. The water system Seacology provided remains in good condition. And the facility again regularly hosts meetings. Despite the staggering odds, the community’s commitment to a healthy ecosystem and sustainable prosperity remains inspiringly strong.

“Seacology’s project stands as a constant reminder of the people’s commitment,” said Marcelo. “The people see that there are benefits, aside from the increased population of the tawilis. They see that there are people and organizations like Seacology, who will assist them if they continue to protect their environment.”

Fish stocks have rebounded since the creation of no-take areas and implementation of an annual closed season.

The Philippines' government has taken an active role in enforcing protections of the lake.