Bong Sison bolsters scuba diving, calls for marine life preservation
By Jose B. Perez, Editor NAGA CITY --- He may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but unknown to many, he, too, has a golden heart, especially when it comes to care of the environment. A well-rounded sportsman, Bong Sison of the prominent Hernandez and Sison family of this city and the province of Camarines Sur, naturally loves the greens being an excellent golfer and lawn tennis player with that killer back hand drive that he perfected since he was in his teens. As a businessman, Bong owns and operates the first modern and biggest printing press in Bicol – AMS Press – which was founded by his late father, Atty. Antonio M. Sison. He was the Executive Vice President of the University of Nueva Caceres -- which was founded by his late grandfather, Jaime Hernandez, Sr., and handed down to his mother, the late Dolores H. Sison -- until the giant Ayala Corporation took over. The elder Hernandez was Secretary of Finance under four presidents -- from Quezon to Garcia until he retired and went back home to establish what has become as the first private university in South Luzon. Having acquired dual citizenship a few years ago (being both a Filipino and a senior citizen), Bong is that kind of person who will never think of just fading away. In fact, he is even more involved now in a much bolder sport that men of weaker stamina and lung power (and admittedly of lesser means) would ever dare --- scuba diving. And diving he does even deeper in the waters off Lagonoy Gulf, Siruma, and Pasacao, aside from having been to more famous scuba diving sites in Batangas (Anilao), Cebu, Mindoro, Palawan, and Pangasinan. Bong has been diving since 1977. “When I started, there was absolutely no scuba facilities in Bicol so I promised myself when I have money to spare, I will buy millions worth of equipment to serve the scuba community and help preserve Bicol’s marine life, and inspire the locals to make money by catering to the needs of the affluent divers,” Bong confided over a cup of coffee with this writer. Scuba diving is an underwater sport where the diver uses breathing apparatus (that contains compressed air) to allow him to spend more time and freer movement while exploring underwater or conducting other activities, such as coral reef watching and hunting fish. Through scuba diving, Bong, to his dismay, had discovered how the coral reefs beneath the seas around the Bicol peninsula were horribly damaged due to widespread dynamite fishing and other forms of illegal fishing, such as the use of cyanide and inappropriate fish nets. He used to call the attention of concerned authorities, including local chief executives and barangay officials, but to no avail. Diving destination But Bong did not lose hope. Only very recently, he met with the local officials of Sangay, Camarines Sur led by its mayor, Evelyn B. Fuentebella, the wife of the congressman, and her son, municipal administrator Jovi Fuentebella, to share ideas and discuss plans on how they can work together to make the town’s famous Atulayan Island a major scuba diving destination and thus entice more quality tourists to go there. Atulayan Island (so named because of its shape like a snail [‘atol’ in Bikol] when seen from afar, or from an airplane) is situated off the coast of Sañgay town in Partido district of Camarines Sur. It can be reached in two hours from Naga City. It is rich in marine resources and the coral reefs lying underneath towards the coastline of the province’s mainland are virtually unspoiled and became even more significantly protected after the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) declared it as a fish sanctuary only a few years ago. Because of its pristine beauty that compares with the virgin islands in the South Pacific, Atulayan became the location for the shooting of a 1965 German-Italian-French movie “Die Letzten Drei der Albatross” or Mutiny in the South Seas that was shown worldwide. Bong said his first concern was to prepare the mindset of the local folks to be friendly with -- instead of driving them away -- visiting or cruising scuba divers because they are not there to destroy the marine life underneath. “On the contrary, scuba divers come to appreciate and preserve them. After all, scuba divers are lovers of nature and the environment such that they take pictures of these amazingly colorful paradise and announce to their fellow divers where these places could be found,” Bong said. “That’s where tourism boom will start and the local folks and fishermen will have an opportunity to earn income by serving as tour guides, providing food (fish, local fruits and vegetables), and even hosting local festivals,” he added. Scuba divers are traditionally known to be affluent, cruising on yachts, with expensive equipment, and ready to splurge on costly getaways. They tour around the country, especially in summer months when the seas are calm and everybody wants to escape the heat in the cities. There are misconceptions among local folks, Bong said, that these yacht-boarding scuba divers are spoiled brats who are out to destroy their coral reefs by rampaging their natural resources or perpetrating illegal activities while in the middle of the sea. First of all, these scuba divers are traditionally pro-environment which explains why they want to dive closer and appreciate the colors and natural wealth beneath the sea. They are in the frontline, so to speak, against dynamite fishers, because their favorite diving spots are being obliterated by these disastrous explosives, Bong said. He added that every scuba diver is required to be licensed, meaning that they have to learn first the basics of the sport and the rules and regulations that should be observed while venturing into such sport. Incidentally, Bong operates ‘Steady Eddie,’ the only accredited diving sport center in Bicol and one of the only few in the country. It rents out scuba gears and equipment, including one of the two yachts that he owns, to any point in Bicol. Bong admits that some scuba divers, including himself, are also into spear fishing as a recreational activity. “Spear fishing is harmless (to the environment) because aficionados only hunt for the big fishes that need to be killed for human consumption anyway while at the same time stopping them from preying on other small fishes, unlike indiscriminate blast or net fishing where even small fishes are killed or got caught,” Bong explained. He added that spear fishing (which uses spear gun) is a difficult sport. Even a veteran spearfisher has to aim and unleash his spear at least 15 times before he can hit one lucky shot for his day’s catch, he said. Bong revealed his being deputized as a Fish Warden is now being considered by BFAR Regional Director Dennis Del Socorro and Frank Ombao of BFAR Camarines Sur. Being an engineer and one who holds a PhD and an MBM from AIM, Bong is demanding a salary that is tax free -- a staggering P1 per annum! As deputy, he will watch over the seas and protect the province’s deteriorating marine life from illegal fishers, especially those using dynamites, that are the worst plunderers of our coral reefs and fish sanctuaries. “It is hard to turn one’s back on something you know is wrong [such as dynamite fishing]; so I involved myself in making things right,” Bong said. He wondered why private dealers were able to ship out blasting caps for local fishermen to procure [to be used in making dynamites] under the noses of local authorities, when the latter are regulated/prohibited gadgets because they are exclusively meant for mining and for use by the military in their combat operations. Bong lamented that while there has been some improvement in policing the seas against dynamite fishers compared to the unabated practice in the past, illegal fishing has not been significantly eliminated. He said blast fishing remains to be constantly taking place in Siruma, Caramoan, Pasacao, and in Lagonoy waters. This is not to mention the same illegal practice occurring in the waters around the Bicol peninsula, including the two island provinces of Catanduanes and Masbate. He said much has to be done to nurture without abusing our marine resources that should start with local folks and concerned parties talking together for the common good. Bong further revealed that he will talk next with Mayor Niño A. Tayco of Pasacao, which is another ideal site for scuba diving, especially the waters off Daruanak Island, to discuss salient matters that will help boost tourism in the area while saving it from human depradation.