This small island in Bohol has been a training ground of deep sea divers in Tawi-Tawi

Apolinario Gaviola, former deep sea fisher, had to bring home three fishermen who died while working underwater.

Roel Rico worked as deep sea fish hunter. His two sons are in Tawi-Tawi.

The “bobo” or “tanggal” fish trap maker shows his wares. Men in Nocnocan have limited options for jobs.

The fish catch from one fisherman that day weighed 13.4 kilos and was sold for P40 per kilo.

Poverty on the island drives men to go Tawi-Tawi despite the risks involved in deep sea fishing.

Bohol deep sea divers face risks paying off debt

NOCNOCAN Island, Bohol—Defying wind and rain, children romp around the white sand beach leading to this 2-hectare village of houses on stilts where mothers tend their homes and men their fighting cocks.

But behind this simple, idyllic life on this island named after “nocnoc” (shellfish) lies something sinister: For more than two decades, Nocnocan has been a breeding and training ground of boys and men who face danger and abuse to dive and hunt for fish to pay off their debts.

“We need to activate local councils in Bohol against (human) trafficking because the phenomenon looks like it is unnoticed, and involves some hidden arrangement and agreements,” said Carmelita Tecson, officer-in-charge of the Bohol Social Welfare and Development Office (SWDO).

Not too many cases have been filed against traffickers in Tawi-Tawi. Since December 2012, the Bongao Inter-agency Task Force Against Trafficking in Persons has recorded more than 80 cases of trafficked fishermen from Bohol and Cebu rescued and brought back from Tawi-Tawi.

Of this, one case involving two recruiters in Tawi-Tawi was filed July 2013 and is awaiting resolution. In January, another case involving a recruiter was referred to the Zamboanga City Prosecutor’s Office.

Traffickers are often too well connected to law enforcers and others are good at evading authorities, according to the Tawi-Tawi Provincial Police Office’s Women and Children Protection Desk.

In Bohol, not one case has been filed against humantraffickers.

For Tecson, the municipal authorities are in a better position to pursue trafficking cases in their areas. “They know (their constituents) are being trafficked. They must take the necessary steps (to protect them),” Tecson said. As head of the secretariat of the Provincial Council Against Human Trafficking, Tecson said she will lobby municipal councils to pursue human trafficking cases here.

Recruitment scheme

Compressor diving, or hunting fish through deep sea diving using an arrow and a hose connected to a compressor, is a unique skill that has for years drawn recruiters from Tawi-Tawi who hire men from Nocnocan to travel all the way to Bongao and Sitangkai, the seaweed capital of Asia and the Venice of the Philippines.

The scheme works this way: The fishermen are hired to be divers and paddlers, or those who stay in the boat to prepare food. The recruiter receives P1,000 for every fisherman he sends off to Tawi-Tawi. The recruits are first brought to Cebu, then to Zamboanga, and finally to Tawi-Tawi.

There are no written agreements with the fishermen’s “employers” in Sitangkai or Bongao. “The agreement was made orally,” Tecson said. The promised salary ranging from P10,000

to P15,000 to work in Tawi-Tawi is usually on a six-month contract. The fishermen are also promised P80 for every kilo of fish they would catch. In reality, they are paid only P5 to P15 a kilo. Fishermen work from 3 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Life in Tawi-Tawi

Tecson said every pumpboat in Tawi-Tawi has an armed guard watching the divers who are not allowed to resurface until they have caught some fish. They work even when they are sick. If they grow feverish or want to rest, the guards would fire a warning a shot.

Contact with family members is prohibited and use of cellphones controlled, Tecson said.

“They were threatened, and lived in slavery conditions,” said Tecson, who gathered the information from interviews with fishermen over the years.

The fishermen, she said, pay for rice and food and in some instances the crude oil for the pumpboats and their own fishing gear. One minor reportedly died in Tawi-Tawi, and another went blind after he was bitten by a dog and received no medical assistance from his employer.

Worse, some fishermen have come home dead due to their lack of knowledge on how to “decompress” when surfacing after diving some 40 meters into the sea.

Death at sea

Apolinario Gaviola, 63, a fisherman from neighboring Hingotanan Island, recalls with mixed emotions the days when he and four other fishermen became part of a fishing enterprise of a Muslim entrepreneur involving deep sea diving in Tawi-Tawi more than a decade ago.

As the fish catch in Bohol at the time was dwindling due to “tiro” or dynamite blasting, Gaviola and the four others joined a “sakayan” or motorboat on its way to what they imagined was a fishing expedition. It took three days and two nights to reach their destination.

Before departing Bohol, he had gotten a cash advance of P10,000 from the recruiter which he left for his family. He then went deep sea diving to repay the money he had borrowed.

For four months, with a fish hunting gear and a flashlight, he said he “bit the wind” from the end of a tube attached to a compressor before diving into the deep waters of Sitangkai and Bongao. They went diving on moonless nights because it was easier to catch fish.

After paying all his debts, Gaviola decided to return home. But he also had the sad task of bringing the bodies of three companions from nearby islands who died while resurfacing from diving without decompressing.

“I decided not to go back (Tawi-Tawi),” Gaviola, 65, now a grandfather, muttered. “I was traumatized.”

Gaviola found an alternative livelihood—planting “gozo” or seaweeds which he sells for P32 a kilo.

Debt trap

Roel Rico, 48, and his sons Rolen, 25, and Ricky Boy, 27, were recruited from this island in August 2013 to work as divers in Tawi-Tawi.

“We were looking for a regular livelihood which we could not find here. Besides, the fish that we get from tanggal (fish trap) had been dwindling,” he said.

His wife Marie said before her husband and sons left, the recruiter gave her P50,000 as advance, most of which was used to pay debts incurred to raise nine children. Rico and his sons were taken by pumpboat to Pasil, Cebu and then to Tawi-Tawi.

For Rico, the work in Tawi-Tawi is ideal for those who are not “buried in debt.” He knows fishermen who have not been allowed to come home for more than a year now because they still have a debt amounting to P30,000 to P50,000, even more.

The value of the fishermen’s catch is deducted from their cash advances. The fish they catch are salted and sold as dried fish in Pagadian, Zamboanga del Norte and in neighboring provinces. But on some days, sometimes for as long as 15 days, there’s barely any fish to catch.

Some bosses priced the catch of the deep sea divers low, Rico said. So some divers looked for other sources of income like diving for giant sea cucumbers and shellfish.

Rico and his sons were sending P4,000 to P7,000 a month. When they got home, he had to be hospitalized for a lung ailment.

“I refuse to let him go back (to Tawi-Tawi) there because it’s all the same. We keep on accumulating debts, and whatever they sent was not even enough to pay for what we advanced,” Marie said.

But her two sons returned to Tawi-Tawi in August. “They want to look for cash, and it is difficult to find that here,” she said, speaking for the 338 families living on Nocnocan. Some 15 fishermen from Nocnocan are still working as deep sea divers in Tawi-Tawi.

Caught in poverty

Here on this island that posted a monthly household income of as low as P6,000, women do not have proper access to livelihood, apart from selling snacks, salting shellfish and making dried fish. There are no jobs for the youth.

Mired in poverty, the islanders continue to engage in deep sea diving, lured by recruiters despite the risks, said Luciano Meones, the acting barangay chairman.

Pointing at a young boy, he said, “That is Kenken, whose father Julito Pagobo, recently died at the Danajon Reef due to decompression problem. He left nine children.”

The Talibon local government once provided five fishing boats through a fishermen’s organization called LUPA, of which Meones was a member. Those who availed of this assistance had to pay P10 per day. But this proved unsustainable; payments were irregular.

Meones himself used to go deep sea diving in his younger days using compressors, but has now shifted to an enterprise involving 80 fish traps made of bamboo spread under the deep sea near the reefs. His catch, which on any given day is over 10 kilos, is sold at P40 a kilo.

But not every fisherman is like Meones. To help the fishermen rescued in 2013, Tecson said Bohol Gov. Edgar Chatto gave a financial assistance of P 10,000 each “so they can buy fish nets and other gear to start their lives again.”

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