The importance of reef gleaning in coastal communities

CHILDREN gleaning in Lopez Jaena, Misamis Occidental. | PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF DR. ASUNCION DE GUZMAN and Henrylito Tacio

Carolina Pading, who lives in Tubajon, a coastal barangay in Laguindingan, Misamis Oriental, has been reef gleaning for about 43 years now. These days, she collects mostly sea cucumbers, which are common in the area.

Sliced sea cucumbers.

Carolina cuts them into small pieces and mixes them with onions, hot pepper and vinegar then sells these in her neighborhood and in the public market for P20 per glass. On a very productive day, she is able to make 60 glasses of pickled sea cucumbers and earn as much as P1,200! On an average day, however, she earns an income of P500, which is higher than most gleaners usually get.

Carolina was one of the many respondents asked by a group of researchers composed of Asuncion B. de Guzman, Zenaida M. Sumalde, Mariel Denerie B. Colance, Mierra Flor V. Ponce and Gemlyn Mar S. Rance for the study entitled “Economics of Reef Gleaning in the Philippines: Impacts on the Coastal Environment, Household Economy and Nutrition” funded by the Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia.

Subsistence fishing

Reef gleaning — known as “panginhas” in the Cebuano dialect while Tagalog-speaking people call it as “pamumulot” — is how experts called that fishing method that are done in shallow coastal, estuarine and freshwaters waters or in habitats exposed during low tide.

“Gleaning for edible seafood on shallow reef flats during low tides is an important form of subsistence fisheries in the Philippines,” said a policy brief published by the EEPSEA.

“Subsistence fisheries” is a form of artisanal fishing mainly for household consumption or that which earns very little income from selling a portion of the catch. It has been observed that reef gleaning for snails, shells, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, seaweed and fish is “the only form of subsistence fishing in the Philippines.”

Reef gleaning has been practiced in coastal communities in the Philippines for a long time. Even though the practice is widespread in the country, the study was conducted mostly in four popular reef gleaning areas in Mindanao: Laguindingan, Misamis Oriental; Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte; Lopez Jaena, Misamis Occidental; and Cortes, Surigao del Sur.  Only one area in Visayas (Tubigon, Bohol) was included.

“As yields from artisanal gear-based fisheries continues to decline, coastal residents become increasingly dependent on gathering of invertebrates and seaweed to supplement family incomes and put food on the table,” the policy brief said.

Women and children used to be the traditional reef gleaners. But due to declining fish catch in areas where they used to fish and lack of viable employment, men are now joining the bandwagon.

“The increased male participation is perceived to be a consequence of declining catch from artisanal finfish fisheries or lack of viable employment or livelihood,” the policy brief surmised.

Regardless of gender, women often invest more effort (in terms of hours) and obtain higher catch-per-unit-effort or CPUE. In some places, children also have increased participation in reef gleaning activities, spurred on by their parents in order to earn a little more to support their education.

Study highlights

Depending on the target species, practices in gathering edible invertebrates from reef flats range from simple handpicking to using minor implements (that is scoop nets, knives, digging sticks, and rakes).

More than 80 percent of the gleaners’ daily catch comprise of gastropods, bivalves and sea urchins while sea cucumbers and fish are quite rare.  Due to lack of regulation, bivalves and sea cucumbers are collected even if they are still small or juveniles.

Spending an average of 2.3 hours each day, gleaners obtain a CPUE of 0.8 to 2.12 kilograms per gleaner per hour which amounts to a daily CPUE of 2.46 to 5.85 kilograms.

“Revenue from gleaning barely makes a dent in the economy of the average coastal household in most areas,” the paper pointed out.

Many gleaners report that what they earn from selling their catch was barely enough to buy a few kilos of rice each day. 

“Results indicate that family income falls below the national poverty and subsistence thresholds, evidence that Filipino small-scale fishers remain the poorest of the poor,” the study said.

 In terms of nutrition intake, it was found that coastal communities have high energy (86.6 percent) and protein (85.9 percent) sufficiency levels, using the food composition level published by the Philippine Food and Nutrition Research Institute. 

“Seafood contributes 7.3 percent to energy intake and 33.9 percent to protein intake of the average coastal household,” the study pinpointed. 

“Much of the seafood eaten by coastal communities comprise of invertebrates obtained from gleaning, which contribute 30.6 percent and 24.7 percent of the energy and protein intake, respectively.”

On top of this, the study also highlights that certain methods of gleaning are destructive. Among those that have been identified as potentially damaging to the environment were overturning of rocks, use of large digging blades, and the gathering of tiny or juvenile sea urchins and sea cucumbers.

“Most gleaners don’t consider their gleaning practices destructive to the reef environment while few admit that digging for bivalves can accidentally uproot seagrass and that reef trampling can destroy corals and other animals sheltering in seagrass beds,” said Dr. De Guzman, leader of the study.

If left untreated, the study said the above practices “will threaten the natural resilience of these shallow, easily accessible resources, which are virtually unprotected by any statute and management intervention.”

The study also recommended some policies that would manage and regulate reef gleaning. These are: registration and licensing of all resident gleaners, limitation on the harvestable size for target species, prohibition of destructive methods of gathering, and establishment of a coastal zone plan that identifies areas for gleaning and “no entry” zones. 

Development of a viable alternative livelihood for coastal communities, preferably non-fishery based, is needed in order to enhance supplemental income and help alleviate gleaning households from poverty.

“Species inventory and catch assessment of gleaning should also be integrated into the fisheries monitoring program of local government units, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and academic institutions,” concluded De Guzman.