Nastasha Alli is a food writer, recipe developer and podcaster whose work explores the food traditions, history and culture of the Philippines, where she was born and raised.
She moved to Canada in 2007 and has since earned a degree in journalism and written for various food-focused publications.
As a food tour guide in Toronto, she draws upon her 10 years of work in the hospitality and tourism industry to share unique culinary experiences with tourists and locals alike.
Every time I go home to the Philippines, the first thing I do is eat dried fish for breakfast. Fried to a crisp, they’re intensely salty on their own - but paired with a splash of spiced vinegar, garlicky fried rice and a runny egg yolk, it’s the kind of breakfast that Filipinos who live abroad crave almost as much as they long for home.
Often made with sardines, anchovies or round scad, dried seafood products are a staple food in the Philippines. They’re cheap, widely available and a truly local food product. But a recent United Nations report  has projected that in 30 years all commercial fishing could cease to exist in the Asia-Pacific, if existing threats to the region’s biodiversity aren’t acted upon.
According to the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), the country produces over 4.5 million tonnes of seafood annually from the country’s rivers, seas and lakes .
Those same waters, however, are no longer the bountiful seas that my grandparents knew. In the Lingayen Gulf - where rivers from the mountains of Luzon meet the South China Sea - fish stocks have dropped to one-fifth of their numbers from the 1970s .
One of the biggest threats to the sustainability of marine life is plastic pollution and the Philippines is now the third highest contributor to plastic pollution in the world’s oceans . Intended as a corrective measure, albeit small, officials ordered the island of Boracay (famed for its white sand beaches) shut down in April 2018 after discovering most of island’s sewage flowed directly into the sea .
With this rapid decline of Philippine marine resources, I wondered: when I get to my parent’s age, does that mean I can longer have the seafood that I love? Where do those dried fish come from today?
Fishing communities in danger
The BFAR reports there are over 1.6 million fishing operators in the Philippines. Eighty-five per cent of these are small-scale fishers, while the rest are comprised of commercial fishing boats and aquaculture farms.
“Small-scale fishers currently work about 12 to 16 hours per day,” says Dhang Tecson, who works directly with fishing families near the islands of Cebu, in the middle of Philippine archipelago. As much as they don’t want to fish illegally, she adds, many don’t have a choice because of the current state of the country’s waters.
Following years of improper fishing practices like dynamite and fine-net fishing, along with compounded effects of climate change on ocean currents, “fishers can’t catch what they’ve traditionally been able to - so they resort to whatever means necessary to provide food for their families,” Tecson says. “They have absolutely no safety net.”
Tecson is the co-founder of a social enterprise called Fishers & Changemakers Inc. (FCI), whose goal is to build sustainable fishing communities across the country. Their team realized that to keep the tradition of making excellent dried seafood from Cebu alive - something the region is known for - they needed to educate fishers on sustainable fishing methods that could be adapted for their individual communities.
But right now, Tecson says, “the main problem is a ‘livelihood versus food security’ issue.”
Securing a livelihood
Small-scale fishers in the Philippines are primarily men, mostly middle-aged and have little or no formal education . Many fishing families fall at or below the poverty line. On remote islands that are only accessible by boat, entire communities rely solely on fishing as a source of income.
Tecson explains that, historically, most livelihood programs created for Filipino fishers were set up as “projects” to help communities achieve a tangible goal. Non-governmental organizations, for example, have built fishers’ cooperatives and donated facilities, such as warehouses to process and store dried fish.
But the problem is that not everyone knew how to utilize the resources they were given. Fishermen tasked to manage money for their cooperatives, for instance, never actually learned how to budget as they rarely had more than what they needed from day to day. The fishers’ wives, who simply dried their catch under the sun, had no knowledge of using machinery in modern warehouses.
“It always ended like that,” Tecson says. “Hardly any training or follow-up existed.”
So with the goal of using sustainable fishing methods - and a new approach to establishing livelihoods for small-scale fishers - Tecson and her colleagues created a line of dried seafood products called Balangay’s Best.
Through a capacity building approach that covers values formation, skills training and financial literacy, they wanted fishers and their families to see “the real value” of their products; to see themselves as artisans who kept traditional foodways alive, and as integral partners (versus simply a supplier) to FCI’s business.
“The uniqueness of what we do is that we’re able to maximize and build upon our relationships with the fisher folk,” she adds. “We lived in their community to really understand their challenges. There were a lot of gaps in every part of the value chain, and that’s how we realized that we needed to create a holistic sea-to-table model for Balangay’s Best.”
Together with RARE Philippines, a global organization that spearheads and supports coastal conservation, they established parameters to define what sustainable fishing was for the communities they worked with.
Fishers needed to a) be licensed and registered, b) co-manage the fisheries themselves, c) use the right fishing gear, and d) only cast their nets at specified times, locations and seasons.
Bantayan Island, near Cebu, became their model community. “We wanted to show fishers - as well as government and other interested groups - something they could replicate,” says Tecson. Since partnering with RARE in early 2017, the program has expanded to six additional communities.
Only upon securing fishers’ livelihoods, Tecson reminds us, could they begin to earnestly work with fishers to develop and commit to long term plans for making their communities “food secure”.
Challenges to food security
According to the World Food Programme , being “food secure” means that people should have access to nutritious foods that allow them to live healthy lives, at all times.
In the Philippines, small-scale fishers and their families are rarely food secure . Because their source of livelihood (and consequently, income) fluctuates, sometimes weeks can pass before fishers have enough money to purchase food to feed their family.
In the interim, many fishers end up borrowing cash from local lenders, often with a high interest. This daily struggle to put food on the table means that every peso counts - and what is often available cheaply isn’t made with healthy or wholesome foods.
In addition, large fishing companies have long had a reputation for exploiting fishing grounds close to shore . For small-scale fishers, this leaves only a fraction of seafood available for them to easily catch. In order to make a living, fishers have to go farther out to sea, work harder and longer, and face unpredictable weather on the open ocean.
For those who can fish near their communities, another problem surfaces. Less than 30% of the country’s coral reefs are in good condition , with much of it slowly being “bleached” and devoid of marine life . Without the complex ecosystem that supports coral life, fish need to seek food and shelter elsewhere.
How can we restore the health of our seas?
“When corals die, fish move to deeper water, and as a result, fishers have to follow them,” says Rafael Dionisio, a leading advocate for the country’s growing plastic-free movement . In 2016 he began working on “The Plastic Solution”, which encourages people to stuff plastic waste (such as food wrappers and single-use sachets) into used plastic bottles. These “ecobricks” are then used as inexpensive building material for sheds and other non-load bearing structures.
As an avid surfer and beach hostel owner, Dionisio believes that getting the general public to care about the ocean’s health starts with catching their interest.
“We’re looking at the problem first from an ‘ocean livelihood’ perspective. If the beach isn’t clean, no one’s gonna want to play there,” he says. “Making eco-bricks is a small step - a quick win - in the fight against plastic pollution. It makes people realize they use a lot of plastic, which influences behaviour change.”
“It’s not the perfect answer, but we see this as an educational tool,” Dionisio adds. “We’ve tried to use the ‘cool’ factor of the beach and surf culture to make avoiding plastic a ‘cool’ thing as well.”
Though it will take a while to reduce the existing amount of plastic in the Philippines’ waters, every action to reduce plastic pollution matters. Healthy oceans mean that marine life, including fish and seafood, can thrive.
What gets to me is that Dionisio and Tecson are both around my age. If more Filipinos under 35 acted now upon the issues that face our fisheries and waterways - would I still get to share the dried seafood I love with my future children?
 https://www.bfar.da.gov.ph/publication.jsp?id=2363#post (Under “World Scenario: Philippine Fisheries”)
 https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNACU789.pdf (Under “The Philippine Situation”)
 http://www.fao.org/fishery/facp/PHL/en#CountrySector-ProductionSector (Under “Fishing Communities”)
 https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNACU789.pdf (Under “The Fisheries Dilemma”)
 http://pubs.iclarm.net/resource_centre/Chapter-32-FA.pdf (Under “Assessment of Exploitation Status”)
With Dhang Tecson, conducted in April 2018
With Rafael Dionisio, conducted in April 2018See other Finalists