Virgin Mary and Sto. Niño ‘guard’ coral reef

Virgin Mary

THE paint has chipped off and stony corals are starting to form all over her face. The sea has done its work on the icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But She is serving a purpose as well, guarding the waters off Bien Unido, Bohol against illegal fishers.

“The illegal fishing activities in the area have dramatically declined since we placed the religious icons underwater,” said Bien Unido Mayor Nino Rey Boniel.

Looking like an apparition, the Virgin Mary’s image was set on the sea floor, 90 feet deep, beside the wall of a reef. Just a few kilometers away is the statue of the Sto. Nino, standing among a bed of corals.

“We have had zero instances of blasting and cyanide since these religious icons were installed. But the Bien Unido Double Barrier Reef is a huge area. And we need all the help we could get,” said Boniel.

Management zones

The 14-foot, four-ton statues of the Virgin Mary and the Sto. Nino were submerged two years ago by the Sea Knights, a faith-inspired group of divers, in the municipality’s effort to curb illegal fishing activities in Bien Unido, which sits within the Danajon Double Barrier Reef.

There are only six double barrier reefs in the world and Danajon is the only one found in the Philippines. It covers 150 kilometers Sto_Ninoin 19 municipalities of Cebu, Bohol and Leyte. It is the biggest source of marine food in the country.

Bien Unido has turned 7,600 hectares of its portion of the reef into a protected marine park divided into three zones: mariculture for seaweed farming; multiple use where diving and fishing is allowed; and the no-take zone, where fishing is not allowed.

“The underwater religious icons are meant to discourage fishermen from abusing our seas. Secondly, they are for tourism purposes. We believe that once tourists come in, they will provide alternative means of livelihood for our fishermen,” said Boniel.

Blasts

Last Sept. 7 and 8, close to 50 divers and a hundred residents joined a fluvial parade and an underwater pilgrimage in Bien Unido.

Excitement was in the air, until blasts were heard from a distance.

“Our main goal is to eradicate the practice (dynamite fishing). We can’t do it overnight. It will be a long and tedious process,” said Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation (CCEF) project director Jun Amolo.

Amolo heads the Danajon Bank Project, which aims to raise public awareness on the importance of protecting the double barrier reef’s ecosystem.

Under the project, CCEF teamed up with Bien Unido to help promote the area as an eco-tourism destination.

Collaboration

Bessed_Virgin_MaryThe parade and pilgrimage coincided with the second anniversary of the icons and the Catholic church’s celebration of the birthday of the Virgin Mary.

CCEF and Bien Unido invited the Lapu-Lapu Marine Sports and Boat Operators Association, Bohol Yacht Club and Sea Knights and other divers and dive shop owners to the first underwater pilgrimage with the religious icons as the centerpiece of this diving experience.

“It is important to invite our dive shop owners from Mactan. Most tourists come from there. Bohol dive sites are a regular fare in dive safaris. We introduced to them the underwater grotto and the Sto. Nino so they can include these in their stops because you don’t get to see this anywhere,” said Amolo.

“This dive site is actually one of a kind. The impact of tourism would mean a lot not just to the locals but to our campaign as well. It will provide an alternative livelihood for the fisherfolk.  Part of the dive fees will go to the community,” said Amolo.

Improvements

After the pilgrimage, divers and organizers sat down with local government officials and representatives of nongovernment organizations to discuss how to improve the program.

“We have gotten some really helpful inputs from our divers, which we will be working on as soon as possible,” said Amolo.

Boniel said that after getting positive feedbacks from the participants, they have decided to do this on a regular basis. “For this year, we only had a month to prepare. Because we know that the secret to successfully reach our aim to protect these resources is consistency, we will make this an annual affair. Also, in our end as the ones who made the ordinances, we will also be consistent in implementing them. We will not slacken in our efforts to protect the Danajon Bank,” he said.

By Marian C. Baring, Sun.Star Cebu.

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