Dr. Aletta Yñiguez: Hero of the Ocean

October 05, 2019 Voluntourism

We know mermaids are creatures of beauty, magic, and power. There was once a period in my life I wished very hard to see a mermaid. That didn’t come true, and I had forgotten about it until not too long ago. But, I recently met someone who was close to one, and she reminded me of my mermaid dreams. She cannot breathe underwater, doesn’t have a tail, and is fully human. Nevertheless, she is a true child of the deep blue sea.

I met her last year in the university where she teaches. Then, a few months ago, I got another assignment to interview her again. So, I travelled to Samar, in Jiabong specifically, to talk to her again.

Her name is Dr. Aletta Tiangco Yñiguez, and she is a teacher, a hero of the ocean, an inspiration to many. She is also one of the honorees of this year’s The Many Faces of the Teacher, an advocacy program of my clients Diwa Learning Systems and Bato Balani Foundation.

Dr. Alet is one of the young scientists in the country at the forefront of the understanding of this phenomenon. Her field of expertise is Biological Oceanography, which focuses mostly on microorganisms in the ocean.  

Why is her field of study crucial? Because she researches one environmental phenomenon plaguing the country, which is Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), or red tide. It refers to an accumulation of harmful phytoplankton in a large body of water. 

The people of Jiabong are too familiar with this. 

Jiabong is a 5th class municipality in the province, whose primary source of income is tahong, or green mussels. It is also known as the Mussel capital of Eastern Visayas.

I have passed by Jiabong several times during my previous trips to Samar, but it was the first time I stepped foot in it. The place was very unfamiliar. We actually missed our stop and had to walk back to town, on the bridge, with luggage in tow.

It was then I appreciated how much the municipality relies on tahongs. Stores lined the area next to the bridge and the street where people sold freshly caught, shelled, and bottled green mussels. 

In the town center, there are giant mussel figures.

Glicerio P. Meniano, an LGU employee we talked to, explained that around 40% of their population are in the green-mussel industry. They produce around 500 sacks of mussels every day.

Dr. Alet is project lead of COASTS (Community Alliance for the Sustainability of our Threatened Seas) in Jiabong, a partnership between academe, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, coastal communities, and LGUs. Their overall goal is to improve food safety, livelihood security, and, ultimately, good quality of water through an early warning system that would help address problems related to the occurrence of HABs.

Through COASTS, she engages shellfish and fish farmers.

One of them is Melvin Labendia, a fisherman. He said that through COASTS, they learned what to do during red tides or typhoon. 

In Jiabong, when red tide happens, people starve,and lives are disrupted.

Melvinalso shareda lot withus.“Natutunan namin kung ano ang gagawin namin kung may problemang darating tulad ng kung may red tide or may bagyo. Kaya, masaya kami na pumunta sila rito. Nandito sila para mabawasan ng kaunti paghihirap ng Jiabong. Kasi pag may red time, kuloang tiyan.” (TranslationWe learn what do when there is a red tide.We are so happy they came here. They help alleviate poverty in Jiabong,because when red tide happens, our stomachs go empty.)

Dr. Alet explained to me that thereare about three to eleven sites around the country that are affected each year. Many of these are continuously affected for months to a year.

True enough, just a few weeks after our visit, and after we enjoyed deliciously cooked adobong tahong, red tide struck Jiabong.

She and her team of scientists and students are figuring out the triggers of red tide and what the prospects for predicting it are.

Aside from economic losses in the fisheries sector of the country, red tide has harmful effects on human health. And there is little understanding about it in the community level.

There is actually no antidote for severe cases. But, because of poverty, the people of Jiabong have sometimes risked it, just to survive, relying on alternative treatments.

To further her research on HABs, Dr. Alet also does computer modeling.

“We try to capture what we see in the actual world in computers, simulate them, and try to predict what is going to happen.”

She also collaborates with the National Institute of Physics of the University of the Philippines to develop low-cost sensors that will aid in gathering real-time data to provide insights into the factors that affect the formation and decline of the harmful algal blooms.

Aside from these, Dr. Alet has also turned to social media and conducts summer camps to reach a bigger audience.

Her page BaybayDagatPH shares news and views on Philippine marine science. The annual science camps, Climate and Ocean Science Youth Camp, exclusively for public high-school students and teachers, provide an immersive experience in oceanography and climate science. This is in partnership with the Department of Science and Technology.

She hopes to get more people interested in her particular field of expertise, which is Biological Oceanography.

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