Pa aling Fishing


Pa-aling fishing in the South China Sea

… Pa-aling is a controversial method of net fishing practiced in the Philippines around the islands of Cebu and Palawan.  Last year I travelled to Palawan with a BBC film crew to document this incredibly dangerous practice for Human Planet.  We spent a week at sea with two pa aling boats, with men diving approximately 3 times every day.

Pa-aling is derived from an older Filipino fishing technique known as Moro Ami which was officially outlawed in the mid 80’s as a result of repeated accusations of exploitative child labour practices and its highly destructive effect on the Philippines’ reefs.

The two techniques have a similar premise for catching fish, which involve groups of men diving to the ocean floor and setting up a large purse shaped net at the side of a reef, then arranging themselves in a line acting as a human barrier on the other side of the reef.  The men then march slowly over the reef towards the net corralling all sea life into the jaws of the net.  The net is then secured shut and floated to the surface to be pulled on to the boat.

The difference between the two techniques is that with Moro Ami, the human barrier traditionally used a line of rope weighted with rocks which were banged on the reef as they moved, scaring the fish towards the net.  Also, the men were all breath divers which meant that they could not harvest fish from deep reefs.  In Pa-aling, divers breathe compressed air through long tubes which allows them to easily dive to reefs at 100 ft, often for over half an hour at a time.  Also, the barrier which they use to corral the fish is created from air bubbles emanating from their tubes.

Here’s the story…

Boats normally work in pairs, each boat typically has about 40 men aboard

The captain on our boat ran a very tight ship.  He was extremely well respected by all the divers and didn’t take any bullshit from anyone.  There were some very hard looking guys on the boats but they were always incredibly polite to us, something that has everything to do with the captain’s presence as far as I’m concerned.

Men are paid a wage depending on how much has been caught on the trip

Tools of the trade

All the divers are freelancers, so to speak, which means they bring all their own diving equipment with them on a trip, typically a homemade weight belt, homemade fins and a bought mask.  For those of you that dive, you’ll know only too well how important good equipment is at depths of 40 metres.  Now imagine trying to breathe using just a pipe that regularly gets kinks in it, has no regulator and is fed with air by a rusty old compressor 100 ft above you on the boat.

Breathing without a regulator

Equalizing pressure at depth

Men await the captain’s instruction to dive

The first few men take down the net, unroll it and secure it to the bottom

Then the other boat motors over to the other side of the reef ready to drop more divers

These guys then dive down in a line to form the human barrier…

… and move together in a line towards the net blowing bubbles as they go

When they reach the opening of the net they start to bunch together

… and then the underwater ballet really starts…

… Until the net is completely closed off with the fish trapped inside, ready to be lifted to the surface…

Up and away

Now it’s just a case of making sure nothing escapes on the way up ….

… and onto the boat…

Catches are regularly pitiful

Migranes and ‘the bends’ are common amongst divers… there aren’t many old men doing this job

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Life on the high seas…

There’s quite a bit of sitting around waiting for the sonar to pick up traces of fish

Every night, the only thing on telly are cheesy Filipino pop videos played at full blast

At least when it’s time to pick up supplies from the mainland, you get to mess around in paradise

… and the South China Sea has some of the clearest waters on the planet

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The best advice to people who want to get into this line of work…

Don’t drop your air hose at 100ft.  It’s not good for your health

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Here’s a teaser clip of this story from Human Planet‘s Oceans episode…

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Still reading?  Join in the discussion on my Facebook page.

31 Responses to “Pa aling Fishing”

  1. Sheryl says:

    Hi! I have just watched the documentary. It really broke my heart. Can you help me connect with their captain or one of these people?

  2. Anonymous says:

    hey timothy, this one break my heart. Good job.

  3. sefton f-b says:

    Beautiful shots as always, tragic though as mans impact upon the biomass once again leads to diminishing returns, where are we all going…?
    Tim, I wonder how do you ‘actually’ seperate yourself from the ‘impact’ & ‘destruction’ you witness, does the lense protect as such, is that the ‘barrier’ like some kind of emotional prophylactic?

    • Timothy says:

      The older I get and the further I travel around the world, the more I realise that ‘impact’ and ‘destruction’ are quite normal consequences of a super successful species like our own. Unfortunately for us, mother nature compels us to survive and multiply without prejudice or judgement. A large portion of the people on the planet don’t have the luxury of living by ecological values. They’re just surviving by any means. Ironically though, I feel that the world’s poorest people are having far less impact on the environment than us richer folk buying ‘green’ products. Better we weren’t buying any products at all.

      These days I don’t separate myself from that stuff. I just accept it. It’s part of our history as a species as far as I’m concerned.

  4. pali says:

    Thanks for sharing all your photos. You made me realize how much I miss exploring the earth, and I am going to try my best to visit these places (or discover my own). How hard is it go get to the dolphins?? I was in Brazil but didn’t make it to the amazon…

    • Timothy says:

      It’s easy to see the dolphin’s in Brazil. Head for a town called Manaus, and then someone there will be able to take you upstream to a place where you can see the dolphins. Many of the villages around that area have relationships with dolphins which feed of the fish scraps that they regularly throw into the river. I can’t remember the name of the village we stayed at…. it was very small… only about 4 families… a 2 day boat ride upstream from Manaus… but you don’t need to go that far from Manaus to see dolphins. If you search google you will find somewhere… people have posted films on youtube.

      We also filmed dolphins in Laguna beach in southern Brazil. That is very easy to find and the dolphins are there every day fishing with the locals. You can park your car on the beach with the fishermen and watch them all day if you want to.

  5. clof101 says:

    It’s now March 6th, but I’m taking the chance and hoping with fingers crossed that you may still have a few calendars left to give away.

    Here is the best thing I have found on the internet this week:

    Ok, I admit it’s kinda out there, but too, too funny…

    As far as “most interesting”, that was finding your blog, of course!

    Calendar, please…?? (Hey, there are 9 more months to go still!)

    • Timothy says:

      Hmmm. All gone! I’ll try and find something else to give away when I get back from Pakistan. Stay tuned.

      • clof101 says:

        oooo.. Pakistan, that’s where you are!

        I’m sure just your pictures and blogging will be more than enough to stay tuned for. No calendars needed!

  6. evenstarwen says:

    I am from Palawan. And it breaks my heart that there is such poverty forcing my people to do dangerous work amidst all our natural riches. Thank you for telling their stories.

  7. shisha hookah says:

    I read that as hookah drivers and was expecting rickshaws with people smoking hookahs on them.

  8. Maddy says:

    A teaser indeed. I just heard about this on BBC’s Woman’s Hour. Goodness knows how long we’ll have to wait until we can see it – maybe on BBC America.

  9. Timothy says:

    Exceptional work.

  10. Timothy says:

    You are absolutely right. I love it!

  11. Drew Morgan says:

    I found this article fascinating, underground art in an unfinished subway station in New York.

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  12. Joan B says:

    I wish I ‘d thought of doing this, but since I didn’t here it is…

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    For all the Bristolians out there.

    Do I get a calendar then???!

  13. tele says:

    This is off our coast ..Perth Rottnest..great Blue Gouper-love it

    • Timothy says:

      Lucky you… wish I lived near a reef.

      • Gena says:

        Mr. Allen, how would you like to come to the Philippines, we have a thriving house reef, just a few meters from our sea gate.

        You can document many kinds of fishing with our house as a base. The reef is a marine protected area, with close to 400 reef fish species.

        We are also close to Apo Island.

  14. Sim Davis says:

    Too many things to choose from but i have plumped for Dark side of the Lens about surf photographer Mickey Smith.

    Thanks for all the human planet posts, its been great.

    • Timothy says:

      OMG Sim. That is absolutely incredible! I’m gob- smacked… I now have something new to aspire to. I want to make a film like that. I had goose bumps all the way through it. Absolute genius.

      Thanks for the link.

    • Timothy says:

      Funnily enough, someone else told me to watch this a couple of weeks ago. Still love it after five watches. Really inspiring. Thanks.

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