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The quaint and rugged charm of Cortes, Surigao del Sur, has been elevated to national prominence after its municipal government became the first grand prize winner of the Malinis at Masaganang Karagatan (MMK) National Search for Outstanding Coastal Community of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. President Rodrigo Duterte and Department of Agriculture Secretary Manny Pinol feted Cortes LGU and the other winners during the awarding ceremonies at the Rizal Hall of the Malacanang Palace on March 7, 2017.

The Department of Agriculture through the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources launched the national search on October 7, 2016 aimed to award coastal municipalities for their efforts in protecting and conserving marine environments. The MMK program has four search criteria: (1) absence of illegal fishing and observance of fishing closed season, (2) establishment of protected marine sanctuary, (3) clean coastal waters without domestic and industrial wastes and, (4) effective mangrove protection and rehabilitation program. Cortes-LGU topped each of the search metrics with distinction. For its feat, DA-BFAR has allocated P20 Million Livelihood Support Funds for Cortes-LGU.

Cortes is a Municipality squeezed between Tandag and Lanuza in the Province of Surigao del Sur. Protruding outwards to the Pacific Ocean, it has more areas of Municipal waters (56,000 has.) than land (13,059 has.). The coastal areas of Cortes support abundant and diverse ecosystems of coral reefs, sea grass beds, mangrove forests and soft bottom environment that are habitats of a wide variety of fishes and invertebrates. The coral reefs of Cortes are most likely among the largest in Lanuza Bay with an estimated area of 2,780 has. Its seagrass beds and algal flats are estimated at 1,500 has. The total area of mangrove forest was recorded at 330 has.

With more municipal waters than land area, necessarily, around 80% of the residents of Cortes are involved and dependent on fisheries for their livelihood. Most of them are littoral fishermen, with the near-shore area providing them with an abundance and variety of fish. In fact, Cortes, though relatively a small municipality, is the major supplier of fresh seafood and first class fish in the Province, such as the bangkawan (mottled spinefoot), kitong (Goldspot Spitefoot), langub/talakitok (Trevally/Jack), gangis (Horned Surgeonfish) and tangigue (Spanish Mackerel).

The MMK citation is a culmination of an unfolding shift in how Cortes crystallizes its coastal management initiatives. It is a paradigm which shifted focus from being resource-centered to human-centered enabling the Cortes-LGU to turn around its otherwise stagnating approach on its marine ecology’s health, with the people themselves now actually and actively participating in marine conservation and rehabilitation efforts.

The Cortes-LGU embarked on a bold holistic approach towards an “effective coastal resource management” through the collective efforts and desires of those in local government, the stakeholders and the constituents themselves. The pilot program covered the period of July 2013 – October 2016 during the first term of the current local administration, and continuing, as it does, with the present and next generation of stakeholders working closely and seamlessly.

The innovative approach took root in the fresh, dynamic and ingenious leadership of the mayor of Cortes, William M. Angos. The paradigm shift may not be strictly from his own thinking much as the stakeholders have more claim to it, he propagated an environment which co-opted critical decisions on coastal management with the community and no longer with the denizens of the municipal hall. As often been observed, Mayor Angos is himself a trailblazer and an advocate of participative governance and thinking off the box.

Mayor Angos was a practising CPA-lawyer in Davao City for almost a decade before he was elected as Mayor of his hometown in 2013. He was a man of many pursuits and distinct passions, a fresh face and a forward thinking leader when he was elected Mayor of his small town. Before his foray in political life, he was an ardent mountain climber who scaled Mt. Apo almost every year and a certified advanced-level SCUBA diver who plumbed all the significant verdant diving sites in the Batangas and Davao coasts.

Mayor Angos was also a long time commercial law professor of his alma mater, the Ateneo de Davao School of Law, apart from handling leadership roles in the many civic organizations of which he is a member. This myriad of experiences distils his inclinations, skills set and values to lead a small fishing town to a direction which will now be a model to replicate by other coastal communities throughout the country.  

The MMK citation now places Cortes to national attention as the best coastal community. The fruits of its efforts are not just in their implementation but in their being institutionalized to the coastal community of Cortes affording assurance that they will be sustained and enforced in the years to come.

For one, all the relevant local legislation for coastal resource management have already been passed when the enthusiasm and fervor of the stakeholders took hold of the municipal council. Tracing the conceptual design of Mayor Angos, the LGU has institutionalized the coastal resource management duties of the Municipality through the creation of offices, complete with qualified officers and a complement of staff, wholly devoted to CRM programs and related activities

The increased awareness on the necessity of genuine marine protection and conservation efforts has likewise pushed the people of Cortes to action, thus resulting to increase compliance with relevant laws and participation with protection and conservation endeavors and programs of the LGU. In another first, the LGU campaigned for and immediately completed the registration of fishermen complete with ID system, and complied with the BFAR’s FISHR program by the end of December 2014. It then campaigned for and immediately completed the registration of boats and gears by the first half of 2015 and complied with BFAR’s BOATR program by the end of December 2015.

These bold initiatives easily took hold and the bountiful harvest soon followed. There was historic increase in fish biomass and individual fish catch, an immediate result of protection and conservation efforts. This in turn contributed to the increase of government income which steadily trickled up with the increase in fish production. Just as significant, the initiatives curbed illegal fishing activities and illegal fishers; instilled pride among the local fisherfolks and enforcers in particular and the constituents in general, resulting to arrest of illegal fishers, and drastically diminished incidents of illegal fishing.

All in all, the holistic approach of Cortes LGU in coastal management has invigorated economic activity and CRM-related and livelihood programs not seen in its municipal history. Amazingly, it did so by empowering its constituents and encouraging active participation in MPA protection and conservation. By co-opting power from the local government to the stakeholders of coastal management, the Municipality of Cortes has scaled the summit of its potential and the nation has taken notice.

The Municipality of Cortes is truly the outstanding coastal community that others should look up to. This town of Malinis at Masaganang Karagatan has surfed the waves of its own limitations. It has sailed forth and the nation has noticed.

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