Anna Oposa Diving at a marine sanctuary.
Steve De Neef
Anna Oposa is co-founder of conservation NGO Save Philipines Seas, but she also has another title there: Chief Mermaid. And although the title might raise a smile, it has also helped to raise funds for serious marine conservation work.
“The title of ‘Chief Mermaid’ began as a joke,” Oposa said.
According to Oposa, after seeing that other organisations had title like Chief Executive Officer, Chief Finance Officer etc, she thought it would be funny to put Chief Mermaid on her calling cards instead.
“It stuck — everyone from government officials to children, we teach call me Chief Mermaid! It works though – the title shows, even just a little bit, that I may take problems of the sea seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously.”
Save Philippine Seas aims to conserve and restore coastal and marine resources via environmental education and community-based projects.
According to Oposa, her connection to the sea started early.
“My dad pioneered environmental law in the Philippines, so I grew up exposed to all kinds of environmental issues, from illegal logging to illegal fishing to air pollution,” she said,
“Environmental law was an ordinary dinner table topic.”
“My dad insisted that me and my brothers become scuba divers because according to him, we wouldn’t know the true beauty of the Philippines unless we saw what was beneath.”
“I became a scuba diver when I was 15 and liked diving, but I still didn’t see anything related to conservation it as a career.”
While originally starting out in the arts, Oposa was wrapping up her undergraduate thesis when she learned about a marine illegal wildlife trade case called “the rape of the Philippine seas.
“It led me to like-minded people online and Save Philippine Seas (SPS) began as a social media campaign created by a handful of people who met online as a response to that case,” she said.
In 2012, she won the Future for Nature Award and became a Marine Conservation Action Fund fellow. Through these opportunities, she recieved 50,000 Euros to establish a shark sanctuary and to do additional stakeholder consultations, data collection, develop the management plan and an ordinance to establish the marine protected area network.
“The funds from the FFN gave me the confidence and financial support to pursue it full-time,” she said, “I moved to Malapascua, Cebu, where the pelagic thresher sharks are, with the ambitious goal to establish a shark sanctuary and build the capacity of various stakeholders towards that goal.”
Oposa says although there was a difficult start, the support of locals, dive operators, teachers, government officials, and other NGOs meant that in 2015 the area was declared a shark sanctuary, the country’s first, via an Executive Order by Augusto Corro, the Municipal Mayor of Daanbantayan.
“But we didn’t want it to be a “paper park” as many sanctuaries have been in the Philippines,” she said.
A Pelagic thresher shark (Alopias pelagicus) cruising the Monad Shoal seamount near Malapascua … [+]
Universal Images Group via Getty Images
“Philippine coastal and marine ecosystems are under a lot of pressure and threat due to lack of political will, poverty, apathy, and illegal and destructive fishing activities, to name a few,” she said.
According to Oposa, the two biggest problems are a lack of coordination and cooperation among different group with an interest in these areas, as well as low awareness, education, and engagement towards marine issues there.
“We don’t just think out of the box – for us, there is no box and we use a lot of inspiration from trends and pop culture to break away from traditional or expected forms of campaigning.”
“Scientists in the Philippines are doing the best they can with the limited resources and support they are given. It’s the lack of resources that have made them resourceful and innovative,” she said, “ The number of scientists is relatively small, I suppose, because it’s generally not perceived as a lucrative profession.”
According to Oposa, she has had the opportunity to apply lessons learned in the project across other countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. So far, she says, the methods are transferrable and applicable.”