Reviving Philippine fishing communities through science

Lota Creencia was born and raised in Palawan, an island province in the Philippines. Growing up in a fishing community, she saw the people around her struggling to survive.

Creencia, a scientist, noticed fisherfolk harvesting a local species of abalone, a shellfish nicknamed “black gold of the sea.” Abalone is sold at high prices in Manila and international markets. Enticed by extra earnings, the fisherfolk collected abalone at unsustainable rates, destroying abalone populations and habitat.

Woman addressing people seated at tables (Paolo D. Pangan/USAID)
Lota Creencia speaks to abalone farmers at a training conference. (Paolo D. Pangan/USAID)

Creencia tried to help by starting an abalone hatchery at Western Philippines University, where she is a professor. “If people could farm abalone, they would earn more money without harming the ocean,” she explained.

But she could not get abalone to survive in captivity. Her difficulty was ensuring that diatoms — single-celled algae that abalone feed on in the wild — survived in the lab. Without diatoms, abalone would not develop from larvae to juveniles.

Abalone (Paolo D. Pangan/USAID)
Abalones are edible mollusks. (Paolo D. Pangan/USAID)

Creencia applied for and received a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and RTI International. With USAID funding, she hired five researchers, improved the hatchery facilities and procured better lab equipment.

“The grant enabled us to gather more data and meet the standards of the scientific community,” Creencia said. “It increased our credibility and confidence.”

Fisherman on boat looking at abalone caught in net (Paolo D. Pangan/USAID)
A fisherman harvests abalone. (Paolo D. Pangan/USAID)

A year after receiving the grant, Creencia and her team made discoveries that increased abalone survival rates five times. She started supplying fisherfolk with juvenile abalone and taught them how to grow and harvest them in the sea.

Today, more than 50 local fisherfolk farm abalone as a result of Creencia’s research. Many have savings for the first time in their lives, including Marilyn Lagarda and her husband. “When our daughter was hospitalized, we used our extra money to pay the bills,” Lagarda said.

Scientist showing children abalone in tank (Paolo D. Pangan/USAID)
A member of Lota Creencia’s team shows children abalone in the lab. (Paolo D. Pangan/USAID)

“I always wanted to give back to my community,” Creencia said. “This grant allowed me to break from the confines of the lab and connect to people.”

Scientist and children holding hands on beach and looking out to sea (Paolo D. Pangan/USAID)
Lota Creencia and her team hope to inspire young people to become scientists. (Paolo D. Pangan/USAID)

Now, Creencia is writing a manual so that others can adopt her technology. She also encourages youth to become scientists. “If we could each inspire 10 young people, we could multiply the number of scientists pursuing solutions that will better our world,” she said. “That is my dream.”

A longer version of this article appears on USAID/Exposure.