Young Tawi-Tawi scientist out to save sea of childhood
The sea, with its diverse marine life, and the pristine beaches of his hometown Sibutu Island in Tawi-Tawi were Richard Muallil’s playground as a child.
Now, as a 35-year-old marine scientist, Muallil is hoping to transform his old playground into a marine sanctuary, preserving its biodiversity and promoting sustainable fishing.
“Because there are not many programs (either private or government) … on coastal resource management there (Sibutu), the threat from overfishing and habitat destruction is high,” said Muallil in an interview with the Inquirer.
Muallil was named one of 12 new Outstanding Young Scientists by the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), the country’s highest scientific advisory body, during its recent 38th annual scientific meeting in Manila.
He is the first from Tawi-Tawi, the country’s southernmost province, to receive the distinction.
Muallil was recognized for his significant contributions to marine science, particularly his research that provided valuable scientific insights in improving social-ecological conditions of coastal communities.
Muallil, who has a doctorate degree from the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (MSI), was also cited for his published works: 16 indexed by the Institute for Scientific Information and over 50 articles on conference proceedings, books, manuals and magazines.
Impacting people’s lives
In recognizing Muallil, currently director for research of the Mindanao State University (MSU), NAST said, “In Tawi-Tawi, he is now more equipped and highly motivated as he sees his work having direct impact on his home province and his people.”
Muallil, who is also the recipient of the Most Outstanding Ph.D. graduate award and the Edgardo Gomez Excellence Award from the College of Science in UP Diliman, has always been fascinated by the ocean and marine life even as a young boy living in a stilt house in Sibutu, one of Tawi-Tawi’s 300 islands.
His first dream was to become a medical doctor. Graduating at the top of his high school class in Sibutu, he took up zoology at MSU in Marawi City on an academic scholarship, graduating cum laude.
He went on to get a master’s degree in biology. But he found the course “too broad” to allow him to work for reforms in coastal communities. He returned to school to get a doctorate degree in marine science.
“When I was young, it was all play for me. But when, as a scientist, I was able to identify the issues confronting our marine resources, that’s when I decided to go to MSI,” he said.
In Tawi-Tawi, Muallil spends most of his time out in the sea on research expeditions, diving to survey coral reefs, interviewing fishermen and engaging experts and scientists to bring environmental conservation programs to the province.
Muallil expressed hope that the recognition from NAST would shine the spotlight on Tawi-Tawi as one of the country’s last bastions of marine biodiversity and attract government and nongovernment programs to protect its ecological treasure through sustainable resource management.
Tawi-Tawi hosted recently the 5th National Conference on Environmental Science, a rare major event in the province that brought together over 130 scientists, students and researchers from all over the Philippines.
The meeting sought to map out the country’s environmental science agenda.
Tawi-Tawi has a vibrant marine ecosystem and high trophic level fishes, whose populations are reportedly rapidly declining in most parts of the country due to overexploitation and illegal fishing.
Muallil said reef fishes like the bumphead parrotfish, grouper fish (lapulapu) and the humphead wrasse (mameng) were still thriving in the waters of Tawi-Tawi.
A recent study by the environmental group Haribon Foundation showed that reef species, including African pompano (talakitok), giant grouper (kugtong) and the mangrove red snapper (maya-maya), were in danger of extinction due to increased demand resulting from overpopulation, overharvesting and illegal fishing.
“But in our province, they are still thriving,” Muallil said. “In the places I visited, I still consider the resources, particularly the coral reefs of Tawi-Tawi, as very rich because of the presence of large groupers.”
He said what he saw in the markets and from the catch of fishermen indicated that the province had a vibrant marine ecosystem.
But the rich marine life of Tawi-Tawi has resulted in overexploitation and illegal fishing practices, he said.
In some municipalities far from the capital of Bongao, which is covered by few conservation initiatives in the province, dynamite fishing remains a common practice, with up to 300 explosions a day, he said.
“Many local fishermen believe that dynamite fishing is still legal. Their awareness of environmental protection and fisheries management is still very low,” Muallil said.
Seaweed farming and live fish trading were the main sources of livelihood in coastal communities. But backdoor trading with neighboring countries, as well as mining, threatened Tawi-Tawi’s thriving marine ecosystem, he said.
Tawi-Tawi’s distance from the center of government and its reputation as the headquarters of the extremist Abu Sayyaf group resulted in years of neglect in terms of research and development, and discouraged conservation initiatives, Muallil said.
Aside from the presence of the World Wildlife Fund and the Ecosystems Improved for Sustainable Fisheries project of the Department of Agriculture and the United States Agency for International Development in Bongao, there was little or no initiative to call attention to Tawi-Tawi’s other islands.
During his years at MSI, Muallil visited 100 municipalities around the country, studying coastal resource management, coral reef ecology and marine protected areas. He did not go to Tawi-Tawi because there were no conservation projects there, he said.
Noting the neglect, he decided to return to his hometown in July last year, shortly after receiving his doctorate degree, to fill the gap, he said.
He said the research initiatives he did at MSI were applicable to Tawi-Tawi because they were not dependent on technology and equipment.
For the work he was doing in his province, Muallil said, “We will start with the basics … we will teach [local fishermen] proper management first so we can attain sustainable fishing without compromising our rich marine ecosystem.” TVJ/rga
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