Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

The waters off the coast of Mactang © Ian Dale Rios

Between Stars and Waves: Mactang’s Nocturnal Fishing Community

In a small fishing community in Mactang, a coastal sub-village in Esperanza, Poro, Cebu, Philippines, a precolonial maritime culture survives among the few remaining traditional nocturnal fisherfolks. Handed down from generation to generation, these are products of our forebearers’ interaction with their habitat and the cultural manifestations of their attachment to their natural world of the sea, particularly at nighttime. The following subsections briefly documents Mactang’s maritime intangible culture based on in-depth interviews with the elderly nocturnal fisherfolks in the community.

Associated Beliefs and Rituals

The sea during nighttime becomes a realm where supernatural embers—or santelmo—mystify fisherfolks. They are believed to be the souls of ancient seafarers barred from heaven. Referred as beings dili sama sa aton (not like our kind), they appear close to seafarers to haunt and frighten them. However, its hair-raising encounters are merely idle and disappears if deemed harmless. “Well, if you get scared,” says a traditional fisherfolk—with a grin. Other supernatural beings also dwell in the sea—those invisible to human eyes, known to help fisherfolks catch fish and associated with padug-an—which literally means the blood-spilling of a butchered chicken—their way of making the sea feel good. In return, the sea provides fisherfolks large volumes of catch without difficulty. Hikayhikazan, another ritual, is a preparation of a banquet by the pazaw—a fish aggregating device made of a bamboo raft and coconut fronds—to invite the supernatural beings. Food offerings must not be salted otherwise the invitation will be declined. When done, community folks feast over the offerings and may add salt to flavor if they wish to. It was widely believed that those who performed the rituals have truly harvested more fish than those who did not.

Ethnoanemology and Ethnometeorology

Traditional knowledge on winds and weather are crucial in nocturnal fishing. Traditional fisherfolks read wind directions to gain orientation and maintain bearings for navigation. Landforms are reference points in navigation, but the absence of daylight makes it inapplicable—this drives fisherfolks to maximize their other senses and strengthens their relationship with the atmospheric elements. “If you can’t see land, it’s the wind you have to keep in mind,” says one fisherfolk. Apparently, the wind constantly changes, thus, it is always crucial to keep in touch with the wind to stay on track. Winds are also important in forecasting local weather. Panahon is the local word for both time and weather and weather are hazardous elements that needs careful observation. There are nine named winds essential in traditional seafaring (fig. 1).

Ethnoastronomy: Pamitoon

Fig. 1 The nine winds identified by the traditional nocturnal fisherfolks of Mactang © Graphic illustration by Ian Dale Rios

Pamitoon is the technology of using stars in fishing. Stars are referred as tigamnanan—particular marks of time. As long as stars are visible “time will never be missed.” Fascinatingly, an interconnection exists among stars, time, and activity patterns of fish. This largely influences the traditional fisherfolks’ decision making and shapes their fishing ways. Makabugwas is a lone big star which rises at around 3 AM. Called a tinglagak—when fisherfolks are appointed to lower down their pukot (fishnets), and tingkubit—when fish starts to reel in and bump into fishnets. Batik resembles an L-shaped star or an iskuwala. It sets at around 4 AM and indicates the time when fishnets should have already been lowered down. The absence of such stars crucially affects fishing efficiency as it impairs their sense of time—if fishnets are lowered down too early, it could get entwined which would keep the fish from bumping into it; if lowered down late, it would be too late to harvest the time-bound bounty.

Deteriorating Nature—Diminishing Culture

The seascape off mactang is a multidimensional space that encompasses the marine environment, biosphere, supernatural sphere, atmosphere, and the celestial sphere; its cultural associations are reflective of an intimate human-environment relationship. However, a combination of factors threatens this relationship. Large-scale commercial fishing has exhausted the marine biological resources—a threat to the continuity of traditional fishing ways. This epitomizes the inseparability of culture and nature. Moreover, the influence of modernized education has demoted traditional fishing ways as only for the uneducated and the undeveloped is fated to remain at sea—a socioeconomic construct that marginalizes local fisherfolks as lesser members of society. A fisherfolk sums it up, “here, those who have no educational attainment, well, are put to the sea. The uneducated—oh, makes do with only salt and nothing else.” Fundamentally, ignoring these components of culture disremembers the Filipino identity.

Managing Coastal Resources

Leonardo “Baldo” Donaire, a local fisherfolk,meticulously handcrafts the pukot (fishnet) for his father-in-law. © Ian Dale Rios

The integrity of Mactang’s maritime intangible cultural heritage exists not only in the consciousness of the heritage bearers, the traditional nocturnal fisherfolks, but also on the physical space where they interact with the natural elements. Considering the challenges we face today—the deteriorating marine ecosystem and diminishing maritime intangible culture—heritage values of intangible culture provide important insights in managing coastal resources. This study highlights the usefulness of ethnographic data in informing conservation efforts and providing strong basis for resolving conflict of resource use.

There is so much for us to learn from traditional communities in terms of intimate relationships. Traditional nocturnal fishing is a cultural marvel, a heritage of humankind that enlivens the space between stars and waves.