The Ocean & Us Ep9.3: Making Conservation Work for Whales

Dear Friends,

Presenting part 3 (of 3) with Dr. Jo Marie (Jom) Acebes of in the Philippines! She shares about the importance of considering human well-being in conservation (with an example of ray fisheries in the Philippines), her hope for the future (including the importance of youth using social media), and plans for! I so enjoyed chatting with Jom and learning more about her work and even practicing some Tagalog, and I hope you enjoy watching!

See the video and full transcript below!

Your Friend, Danny

Learn more about Jom’s work at


Danny: Tara said you also study rays!

Jom: Yes! I studied specifically the local fisheries for rays. I initially focused on historical – like what they did before, when it was still legal to catch them, like in the 60s, 70s. But by same time as the dolphins were protected, manta rays were protected, but they did not include the smaller rays. So I was very interested in the history, how they hunted them, the culture behind it,  and I wanted to prove how important the fishery was to those people who were hunting them.

The laws changed very recently where they protected all of the species of mobula rays. So I was also trying to help the community figure out how much they were catching just to prove to the government that it wasn’t really that big enough to be significant in terms of endangered the population, but we don’t know the numbers. No one was really studying population abundance. Also again trying to prove how important it is to the community in terms of livelihood.

Unfortunately, the ban came in 2016, so no fishing now for any mobula rays, so that community has stopped fishing. So they have not recovered, they still haven’t recovered, and they haven’t really replaced it. There are some who stayed in fisheries, but using gillnets, which is a lot worse for other species, including marine mammals. And there’s still bycatch (accidental catch) of rays.

Tara: See, that’s the problem. Jom and I have talked about this pretty much whenever we meet: conservation is not just “we’re going to protect this animal now.” There’s people’s rights and well-being involved, there’s the larger system, everything’s connected. If you change one thing, you might make a lot of other things worse. So it’s a shame that it had to end up that way, but it’s really interesting that she studies the community just as much as the rays.

D: I am so interested to learn more about this kind of situation!

T: I think it happens a lot

J: A lot of people don’t want to talk about it. That’s what I find.

T: I think there’s this idea that if you’re doing conservation, you must be doing absolute good, because your motives are good, at least where certain animals (usually it’s animals) are involved. But it can still have detrimental impacts

J: On people. And they don’t want to talk about people. They want to talk about just animals

D: Wow, I am so disappointed to hear that!

J: It’s just like that, unfortunately. Even in conferences, they say they want to talk about it, but they don’t really want to talk about it. Yes, they want you to present, but after that, that’s it

T: It’s interesting, when we were at the Barcelona (Society for Marine Mammalogy) conference two years ago, I had the team from Myanmar who you interviewed – Wint Hte and Yin Yin and Aung Naing Soe – they come from a human research background. And even after the first day, Yin Yin was like “They don’t talk very much about people here.” And this was her first international conference, and with everything that’s overwhelming happening, she was able to make that observation very quickly. But I think it’s changing – very slowly – but I think it’s changing, especially with the younger generations of researchers coming in.

D: Are you hopeful for marine conservation in your country?

J: Hmm… that’s a tough question. Okay. I would say I would like to be hopeful…but I am hopeful for the people who are working in conservation and the younger generation. I think that’s the good thing about the generation now – they’re so creative, and especially how they use social media is just amazing.

I don’t know if you follow the one in Dumaguete, the No to 174?

T: No, I haven’t – is that the reclamation?

J: That’s the perfect example, if you have a chance to look it up on Facebook. It’s run by a group of really young people, and they’re amazing how they’re coming up with infographics and how they… they’re so active, and I just wish we had the same group as them up north. It would make so much difference. They’ve already been running this campaign for almost 6 months, they started in July or June. And they just won’t give up, which is great.

And the people who are proposing to build this reclamation, I think they’re about to give up. If it wasn’t for this young group, I think that would’ve just gone through. So the generation now is just, I think, is amazing. So I’m hopeful about that, definitely.

T: I think the Philippines is one of the places where – maybe it’s because it’s one of the places where I’ve spent the most time for my research – I’ve heard of some of the most ridiculous development projects. Why would you build this super intensive development that destroys the natural environment of some of the most beautiful spots – okay, maybe you can build them somewhere where there’s nothing else there, if you’re making a huge resort or amusement park, [you coming back, dude? Yes]  but to build it in places where you already have things already there to attract people… [oh, he’s getting some water or tea] I’m glad that that one’s maybe on the way out…

J: It was so ridiculous. When I first heard that, I think everyone reacted the same way. And like how the politicians and proponents kept insisting, despite – this is like random people, not even marine biologists, random people going in the water and taking photos of the reef just to prove that there is a reef there and there’s so much life there and there’s fisheries. They [proponents of the development over the reef] kept on saying, there’s nothing there, everything’s dead. It’s just ridiculous when you hear people talk like that, like what is wrong with you? Everyone else is saying that you’re wrong, and they just refuse to admit it.

T: That shows the importance of something like citizen science. If there’s no one to point out any differently, oh, “they’re saying it’s all dead, okay!” – so it’s good to have that other narrative

Hi mister, welcome back. So Danny has really amazing hearing, so he probably heard all of that.

D: Indeed I did!

T: Want to sit down bud? We can finish soon if you’re getting antsy, we’ve had a really nice conversation so far, lots of good material.

D: I am sorry, I am getting restless because I am so excited about these issues and ideas!

J: I hope it doesn’t depress you or anything, because it does to me, that affects me.

T: It’s a hard job. I told you how I feel about people who say “Ocean Optimism!” No! I don’t want to see that hashtag one more time. Because if you’re not an optimist, they think you’re a pessimist, but no, I’m a realist. What do you think of that feeling of despair and how do you balance that?

D: It is so tough but I am so inspired by people like you and the work you do!

J: Thank you. Yes, it’s hard work, but we’re trying. Try to be positive.

T: Our dad used to say, “It’s a tough life, but someone has to do it!”

J: True!

D: How did you start getting interested in marine conservation?

J: It’s a long story! But the short path is: from work. So, I really wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian, but in the Philippines back then there wasn’t a lot of opportunities, so when I was looking for a job, I found out that there was a WWF in the Philippines, so I walked into their office and volunteered (they didn’t have an opening). So that’s where I learned everything about marine conservation, not in books – I didn’t really study marine biology or conservation, I didn’t know anything, I can’t remember knowing anything about conservation even in general before I started working for WWF.

And also I learned about whales and other marine mammals also from work, I just studied on my own and from people like Louella [Dolar] and Bill [Perrin]. So, it’s like, how do you call, serendipity? So it just so happens there was WWF, there was an opportunity to volunteer, there was a project that was available that I could work on as a volunteer, and that’s how I learned about everything.

D: Wow! You are a woman of many skills!

J: Thank you! I don’t know if you can call that skills, but yes, I studied…

T: I think you can call that skills – very highly trained skills.

D: Do you use your vet training?

J: Another very good question. I don’t use it as much as I want to, but I do get to do it more when I deal with strandings.

T: And she takes care of the different animals, the cats and dogs that hang around her field sites.

J: That’s my only actual veterinary practice, like my own pets

T: I called you once from Myanmar – we had a really sad incident with a dog – I was like “Jom, what do I do?” so we all need someone like Jom around everywhere, even for cases like that apart from marine conservation.

D: Totally! And my last question: how are you going to move forward with

J: Yes, that’s a big question. For the past 2 years, especially because of the pandemic, so right now everything is suspended except for our fundraising. So we’re still working on our fundraising. The newest plan now is just – aside from, we do have 2 proposals that we’re waiting for results, we hope to hear this month before Christmas hopefully. So if we get that, then it’s good news for the humpback work and the blue whale work. If we don’t, we still plan to continue the monitoring, but we do it over a shorter period. We do have some savings. It’s unfortunately that way, but it’s really dependent on funding. So it’s a big question mark for 2022 what we’re going to do, because it’s seasonal, most of our work.

We are trying to get new ideas. The newest one is we’re trying to get influencers – local – to promote and our fundraising work and hopefully that will give more attention to the work that we’re doing and hopefully get us some funding.

D: Wow! I am wishing you great fundraising success, and I am so hoping I can visit the whales one day!

T: Me too!

J: It would be great. You would enjoy it I think, on the islands, seeing the whales…

T: We went to see the gray whales in Mexico last year – he loved it. Every time he saw them, “whale!”, “whale!”, “whale!”

J: You would love humpback breeding grounds!

D: Let’s plan on it!

T: Sounds good to me!

J: It’s the season!

T: Now?

J: Yes, it’s started. You just have to hope the borders are open.

T: Yeah, maybe next year!

D: So, can I say “maraming salamat” (thank you) and “ingat ka lagi” (take care always)!

T: Danny, how do you know that?

J: Wow! I’m impressed. Walang anuman! (You’re welcome) And… salamat din! (Thank yoo, too!)

D: Yay!

T: Alright, so are we done?

D: Yes!

T: Okay.

All: Bye!

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