A large fishing vessel stealthily slides into protected waters off the province of Batangas, in the Philippines. Fish warden Jesiderio De Los Reyes, who lives in the local village, spots the ship and punches a text message into his cell phone. The message, roughly translated, reads: "Commercial fishing boat in Pagapas Bay. Net already in use. Boat is white, in front of village of Balitoc." In a few moments he receives a text confirmation: "Ok, we proceed to your place." Backup teams of fish wardens arrive within minutes, along with armed members of the Philippine National Police.
This area in the Philippines, on the southern coast of the main Luzon Island, is the most diverse area in the world for marine life and a popular tourist attraction. Much of that, however, hangs in the balance. When Terrence Gosliner, a senior curator at the California Academy of Sciences, started studying diversity in the Philippines 15 years ago, he remembers dynamite going off close to where he was diving for samples. "I thought my eardrums were going to be blown out," says Gosliner. "Next to me, I'd see [dying] fish writhing around."
A 2003 report by the country's Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture reported that the fish catch in Lamon Bay in Quezon province - one of the best fishing grounds in the Philippines - has been declining by 13.5% annually, more than eight points faster than the national average. Local subsistence fishing is allowed within 15 miles off shore, but many commercial fishing vessels encroach on the richer waters closer inland.
Gosliner came to Mabini, in Batangas, to study the evolutionary relationships and distribution of nudibranchs (a kind of sea slug) but soon became involved in local conservation efforts, where he first noticed the use of cell phone texting among villagers trying to protect nearby waters. Some have even been legally deputized as fish wardens, which enables them to make citizens' arrests, write affidavits, and file court cases. They alert law enforcement authorities with faster boats when a big vessel crosses an invisible boundary, or appears to use illegal practices such as trawling within municipal waters.
Rosalie Recaro, a fish warden from Quezon province, which borders Batangas, says she started noticing more fish wardens using cell phones to alert authorities in 2004. It takes a bit of time to key in a lengthy message, but it's much cheaper than making a call: De Los Reyes says he pays one piso (around two cents) for a text message, whereas a phone call costs six pisos per minute. The local government does not supply fish wardens with cell phones, but on the black market some cost as little as $20 or $30, with monthly plans of $10 per month, says Luna.
Since 2003, the 30 fish wardens of Batangas (land area approximately 3,200 square kilometers) have caught more than 200 illegal fishing vessels, confiscated 14 fishing boats, and brought 24 cases to court, writes De Los Reyes in an E-mail. The punishment for illegal fishing can run as high as 20 years in prison for catching an endangered species, 12 years for dynamite fishing, or a $200,000 fine for a foreign vessel that fishes in Philippine waters.
There's a dark side to the work. De Los Reyes says he and other wardens have received death threats - some as text messages. An example: "The sun won't shine on you." In 2003, an unidentified assailant shot a fish warden named Sexto Atienza outside his home in Batangas. Wardens suspect he was targeted because he helped catch many illegal fishing vessels.
Texting does have its drawbacks. Fish warden Ernesto Jr. Amores told me via text message that his phone once got soaked when his boat accidentally hooked onto an enormous illegal trawling vessel as it gunned away from the shore. Recaro says her phone has stopped working at unexpected and inconvenient times. She might have said more, but her phone battery ran out during the interview.