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IN mid-April of 2023, Dr. Joven Cuanang and the representative of Ilocos Norte’s Second Congressional District Angelo Marcos Barba embarked on a monumental project—to lead a sculpture submersion that would encourage marine biosystem regeneration. Their target date was May 1st and the underwater project’s location, they agreed, was going to be Currimao.
Devoid of nightlife and vibrant city lights, Currimao is often described by locals as a sleepy town.
One of Ilocos Norte’s hidden gems, this part of the Ilocano coast has a rather tranquil vibe. Visitors looking at the town from the newly constructed bay walk would see a majestic combination of coral rocks, the sea, pockets of greenery, and a few small hotels that dot its shoreline.
By dusk, Currimao is more peaceful than usual and after seeing the sunset, local photographers would go out to capture the bay and the stars. While the Ilocano sun is scorching during summertime, the weather makes up for it by offering clear skies at night.
During the colder months, when Currimao gets a proper licking from the cold front, the sea is not as peaceful. But this is just a seasonal consideration because Currimao’s waters used to contend with something worse. Dynamite fishing was rampant for a time and in 2010, the Philippine Coast Guard intensified measures against the illegal activity.
Despite their efforts, many parts of Currimao’s waters took several hits. Coral reefs were destroyed and the catch dropped each year because of the havoc that the explosives caused. The Philippine Statistics Authority reported in 2018 that fish production in Ilocos Norte went down from 1,932.90 metric tons in 2017 to 1,653.98 metric tons the next year. It can be safely assumed that this decrease was due to the destruction of Currimao’s marine sanctuaries as the town is among the primary fishing zones in the province.
Locals already know this without looking at the numbers. Barba recalled in one meeting that in his youth, he “was not deprived of pristine waters to swim in and fresh fish to eat.” Cuanang, a native of Currimao’s neighbor Batac, shares the same experience. He built Sitio Remedios along Currimao’s coast several years ago and the small resort functions as his summer house. After many homecomings, the neurologist finally put his foot down and decided to do something for the fishing village where Sitio stands. His idea was to have several sculptures submerged underwater so that they can become sanctuaries for the coastal town’s marine life.
A planetary crisis
Barba and Cuanang know that nature plays a critical role in people’s health, livelihood and food security. And they are also armed with the knowledge that the death of ecosystems can lead to catastrophe—Sars-Cov-2 being their frequent example.
What many referred to as annus horribilis made the world understand that humanity’s treatment of nature can lead to cataclysmic events and that it can affect the world’s population at a very personal level. In 2020, Wuhan became a household name and Covid-19 effectively put a stop to trade. Based on a 2023 report from the World Health Organization, the disease killed 6,915,286 people worldwide.
There were many discussions at the height of the pandemic but it was rare for television channels to address biodiversity and how it is a critical component to the situation the world was in at the time. This is despite the fact that 60 percent of emerging infectious diseases originate from wildlife areas.
Although the effects of wiping out rainforests to put up industries have been studied and authorities are now more alert to the possibility of yet another global health emergency, only a few studies focus on marine mammals and their potential to decimate a portion of the world’s population as well as the probability of land animals transferring diseases to them.
With coral reefs dying and with more plans of encroaching on parts of the world’s coasts, the results are likely going to be devastating.
Ocean acidification caused by carbon emissions is killing coral reefs. According to a report from the UN, a whopping 90 percent of what is left of them will be wiped out by 2050. In the Philippines, their death will come faster due to dynamite fishing. Soon, there won’t be a lot of fish in the sea and the saying associated with it will lose its touch.
IN the year 2000, a little over 10,000 endangered Caspian seals perished within a four-month period. Scientists from the Center for African Resources: Animals, Communities and Land Use later found that the deaths were caused by the canine distemper virus. Infectious diseases are known to have brought mass mortality among several species but those of aquatic animals are rarely studied. The story about the Caspian seals should have already set off alarm bells. Unfortunately, it did not.
Meanwhile, miles away, Angelo Marcos Barba was serving his third term as mayor of his hometown of San Nicolas. Years before the year 2000, the threat of El Niño still lingered in the province of Ilocos Norte. This is when Barba decided to build water-impounding facilities. The local government was able to build five.
In an interview with the Philippine News Agency 18 years later, right after a massive clean-and-green campaign, Barba said, “We must protect and care for Mother Earth.”
In 2019, while talking about art and nature, Cuanang said, “There’s a science to it already. It has already been proven. Also, it provides happy hormones in your body, and pleasure comes about. And that’s well-being, and that’s what we want to share in the end.”
Years passed and the two Ilocanos collaborated on a number of projects, but they never got to talk about their shared passion for nature and healthy ecosystems. Barba kept working silently and after only a few years in Congress, he already filed several House Bills on wildlife conservation, land use sustainability, and farmland preservation for food security. Just this year, he proposed the rehabilitation of three of the bigger water-impounding facilities that he put up when he was still San Nicolas’s mayor.
And then the sculptures came to Sitio, and he and Cuanang started working on what would be a moment in history that will likely define their legacies.
A massive undertaking
THE core team was led by Bam Cabel Sevilla, a seasoned organizer and problem solver; Pintô’s Kathrine Dacanay Lagustan, a supplies management specialist; Sigrid Salucop, a policy analyst whose body of work concentrates on environmental policies; and Ralph Atienza Mckenzie, a special operations expert. Barba is knowledgeable about the components of the operation and his expertise came in handy when it was time to put everything together.
The marine ecosystem regeneration project involved a lot of planning since the sculptures weighed between 400 kilograms and 2.5 tons each. While plans for the submersion operations were being prepared, the congressman called marine biologists from the Mariano Marcos State University to check Poblacion Bay’s substrates. This was to ensure that it was stable enough to anchor the sculptures in place. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources were also kept in the loop.
On April 30, BRP Waray, one of the country’s biggest landing craft, docked on Currimao. The naval vessel and its crew were greeted by the congressman, Pintô Art Museum’s curator, the Philippine Coast Guard, the Philippine Air Force’s TOG 1, and a boom truck carrying all the sculptures. By 0300H that day, the sculptures, along with the boom truck, boarded the landing craft.
“The submersion operations require military precision. There is very little room for error,” explained Ralph Atienza Mckenzie.
“In some photos, May 1st in Currimao looked like a regular day at the beach but every single detail needed clearance. The submersion site needed clearance from the LGU, the DENR and the BFAR, and all nonmilitary personnel who boarded BRP Waray needed clearance as well. Congressman Barba also made sure not to include civilian divers in the operation to guarantee everyone’s safety,” he added.
In a short interview, Erik Franco said in the vernacular that the operation was “a difficult undertaking.” While the submersion was strictly a military operation, Franco’s company was handpicked to handle the submersion itself.
BRP Waray sailed to Poblacion Bay at 0600H on May 1. It was escorted by three rescue boats from the Philippine Coast Guard. The Coast Guard stationed in Currimao also ferried several tactical divers from the Philippine Navy, master divers from their own ranks, and divers from the Philippine Army.
The 4th Marine Brigade of the Philippine Marines, on the other hand, stationed themselves along the bay walk. Reports say that the Marines were there to protect military assets. The Philippine Air Force’s TOG 1 was also on standby.
By evening, Commander Concepcion of the BRP Waray said that they are already on their way to their next mission. “From the officers and crew of BRP Waray LC288, we are thankful to Congressman Barba for giving us the opportunity to help the province of Ilocos Norte, specifically Currimao. Your Philippine Navy and the whole Armed Forces are always here in service of the Filipino people. We will always be here for the country’s national development goals,” Commander Concepcion wrote.
For the younger generation
“TO the younger generation in the audience, please know that this project is yours, too. Very soon you will be in charge and I trust that you will make us proud,” Barba expressed during the launch. Cuanang, on the other hand, said that this is his way of “giving back to the province” that nurtured him.
While the project will only help Currimao’s coast, Barba and Cuanang are hoping that it would inspire others to do the same.
Based on several studies done on artificial reefs in Turkey in 2009, ecosystem improvement can be seen within a span of 14 years.
“Extensive studies concluded that there was an increase in aquatic biodiversity, fish eggs, larvae and fish diversity, as well as an increase in size in a number of species,” Daily Sabah noted in an April 2023 report.