ENVIRONMENT: Empty nets: A future with no fish

“We are running out of fish and running out of time. For a country known for marine biodiversity, there are very few fish left to catch,” deplored Vince Cinches, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

Roy C. Alimoane, the director of Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC), a non-government organization based in Davao del Sur, agreed. “Like the other vital resources such as forests, Philippine fisheries are about to collapse,” he pointed out.

The collapse of major fishing grounds in the country would mean uprooting 38,000 fishermen each year. “The fish is getting scarcer,” said Jojo Madera, a father of six. “We all have children, grandchildren. We have to think of the future!”

Fish provides more than half of the protein requirement of almost all Filipinos. But in recent years, the average annual consumption has declined from 37 kilos to just 30 kilos. “Unless we look for other sources of protein, the food intake of Filipinos will be greatly affected,” Alimoane said.

Fish shortage is happening in almost all parts of the Philippines. Davao Gulf, the 10th major fishing ground in the country, is a critical resource supporting the economies of six coastal cities and 24 coastal municipalities in Davao region.

But since 2000, the volume and quality of the fish in the Davao Gulf have been found to be in constant decline, according to a study conducted by Kuala Lumpur-based World Fish Center.

Except for maya-maya, the harvest numbers for other nine species have been falling. At the current rate of decline, the caraballas, bilong-bilong, molmol, and danggit may all disappear completely from Davao Gulf within a decade, the study said. The matambaka, tamban and moro-moro are more resilient, but even they may disappear within a generation, it added.

To save the fish from disappearing the waters of Davao Gulf, a close season is implemented every June to August of each year. “A lot of our fisherfolks like the close season at the Davao Gulf to allow more species of fishes to thrive,” Regional Director Fatma Idris of Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) was quoted as saying.

The national office of BFAR attributes the decline of fish catch in the country to destruction of the coastal zones, which encompasses approximately 17,000 kilometers of coastline. It includes mangrove forests, tidal flats, estuaries, island ecosystems, seagrasses, coral reefs and beaches.


Mangroves grow well in tropical countries, including the Philippines. But most Filipinos don’t consider mangroves as important. “Coastal forests are not familiar to the average Filipino due to their early loss,” wrote Jurgenne Primavera and Resurreccion Sadaba in the book, Beach Forest Species and Mangrove Associates in the Philippines. “They’ve long gone unreported in the yearly Philippine Forestry Statistics.”

Dr. Theresa Mundita Lim, director of the Biodiversity Management Bureau, says its agency has identified 42 species of mangroves in the country. None of them are facing extinction yet. But the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is considering of putting 11 out of 70 mangrove species assessed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Mangroves are very important to marine life, says Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, former head of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development. They serve as sanctuaries and feeding grounds for fish that nibble on detritus (fallen and decaying leaves) trapped in the vegetation, and on the bark and leaves of living trees.

“(Mangroves) are important feeding sites for many commercially important fish species (mullet, tilapia, eel, and especially milkfish), shrimps, prawns, mollusks, crabs, and sea cucumbers,” a World Bank report on environment adds. “Fry that gather in mangrove areas are very important for aquaculture.”

From its original area of approximately 450,000 hectares in 1918, the mangrove areas went down to 140,000 hectares in 1991. It decreased further in 1994 to 120,000 hectares, according to Dr. Carmelita I. Villamor, of the Ecosystems Research and Development (ERDB).

According to Villamor, the culprits of mangrove denudation in the country include logging for firewood, harvesting for tanbarks, and the conversion of mangroves to fishponds for milkfish and prawn culture.

Dr. Angel C. Alcala, the environment secretary during the administration of Fidel V. Ramos, claimed that where mangroves are cut, fishery production declines. Fishermen in Bulacan affirmed this theory saying that their fish catch has been falling since the mangroves were cleared in the nearby areas.

Coral reefs

The Philippines has the distinction of being home to more than 400 of the 700 coral reefs known to man. Unfortunately, most of these reefs are in a sad state of destruction. Only 6% of the country’s reefs are in excellent condition. Seventy percent are in various stages of deterioration.

A document from the Cebu-based Coastal Resource Management Project (CRMP) said a good to excellent coral reefs can produce 20 tons or more of fish and other edible products per square kilometers annually.

The destruction of these reefs can greatly reduce fish production, marine scientists said. “Once destroyed, they produce less than four tons per square kilometers per year,” the CRMP disclosed.

The sustainable catch from a good reef over 10 years is about 200 tons of fish while from a destroyed reef is only 72 tons, it added.

Newsweek, in its special report some years back, cited dynamite and cyanide fishing as the cause of the destruction of the country’s coral reefs.

“Although fish can be caught through traditional methods, fishermen prefer using dynamite because a bigger volume of fish is harvested through an easier and simpler process,” a lawmaker pointed out.

Dynamite fishing became rampant after the Second World War and the impact underwater is devastating. “A single blast’s shockwave typically travels at about 1500 meters per second (the length of 15 football fields), killing or maiming every fish in range and often liquefying their internal organs,” wrote Gregg Yan, communication officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Marine scientists said a small dynamite can destroy corals over an area three meters in diameter.

Cyanide fishing may not be as rampant as in the 1970s and 1980s, but it is still being done in the country. “I believe that most cyanide used presently is for food fish and it is difficult to know how wide spread its use is,” Dr. Alan White, who used to be the chief of party of the Coastal Resource Management Project in Central Visayas. “It is still a major problem in Palawan and other areas where the live food fish trade is important.”

Although cyanide fishing is illegal, Filipinos are still doing it. “There may be short term gains now,” reminded Dr. Arnel “AA” Yaptinchay, director of the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines, “but we have to really think the serious repercussions for the future generation. Remember this: no reef, no fish.”


Seagrasses are said to be the “last frontier” of the country’s basic marine needs. In terms of seagrasses in the world, the Philippines – with 18 species thriving along its coasts – has the second highest. Western Australia has more than 30 species of seagrasses.

Seagrasses in the country covers an area of 27,282 square kilometers. They are widely distributed throughout the country – from Bolinao Bay (Pangasinan) in the north, Palawan and the Cebu-Bohol-Siquijor area to the center, and Zamboanga and Davao in the South.

“Seagrasses are the least studied among the habitats in our coastal zones,” Dr. Miguel Fortes, who authored Seagrasses: A Resource unknown in the ASEAN Region. “As such, we know less than we need to in order to use them in solving coastal environmental as well as societal problems.”

In the Philippines, among the diversified species found in the seagrass beds are fishes, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, crabs, scallops, mussels and snails. Shrimps spend the early stages of their lives in seagrass areas. Seahorses, a tourist attraction and of medicinal value, reside in seagrass beds. A study done in five seagrass sites in the country identified a total of 1,384 individuals and 55 species from 25 fish families.

A science report also said: “One hectare of seagrass absorbs 1.2 kilograms of nutrients each year, equivalent to the treated effluent of 200 people. It can produce 100,000 liters of oxygen per day and can support 80,000 fish and 100 million invertebrates.”

Climate change

In 2015, a study released by the WWF considered climate change as “one of the main reasons for the decline of marine species in the last 30 years.”

Climate change, caused by increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, is causing the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere to increase. As the air temperatures rises, oceans absorb some of this heat and become warmer.

“Climate change is already having a profound effect on life in the oceans,” the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says. “Marine species tend to be highly mobile, and many are moving quickly toward the poles to stay cool as average ocean temperature rise.”

The three perilous consequences of climate change in the oceans are sea level rise, coral bleaching and ocean acidification.

According to a new study published in Nature, the world’s oceans are now rising far faster than they did in the past. The current sea-level rise rate – which started in 1990 – is 2.5 times faster than it was from 1900 to 1990.

The study found that for much of the 20th century, sea level rise was about 30% less than earlier research had figured. “We’re seeing a significant acceleration in the past few decades,” study lead author Carling Hay, a geophysical researcher at Harvard University, was quoted as saying.

“Climate change and its impacts, which can include bleaching, are some of the most pressing global threats to coral reef ecosystems today,” said Jennifer Koss, acting program manager for NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program.

Coral bleaching takes place when corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light or nutrients. They expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn white or pale.

“Bleaching is not a good thing,” explained Dr. Terry Hughes, a distinguished professor at James Cook University, who convened the International Coral Reef Symposium in 2012 at Cairns, Australia. He said that as warm temperatures intensify, coral bleaching wil l also increase at an unprecedented level.

Ocean acidification is climate change’s evil twin. “Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually finds its way to and dissolves in the oceans, causing the water to become ‘acidic’… reducing the ability of the coral reefs to deposit calcium carbonate or calcify,” explained Dr. Edgardo Gomez, the founding director of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute.

The acidity in the waters “can make life difficult for organisms that build shells out of calcium carbonate,” the NOAA says. “This includes not only corals and shellfish, but also tiny organisms like pteropods that form the foundation of many marine food webs.”


Pre-Columbian American farmers once dug moats around their fields. They were not protecting their crops from raiders or thieves though. They were adding another dimension to agriculture: fish production.

As fertilizers and crop residues ran off the land into the water, they feed the food chain that supported fish growing. Since the middle century, the practice has been changing. Today, aquaculture is touted to be the aquatic counterpart of agriculture.

In recent years, a fish catch has been dwindling in the open seas, people are now raising fish. And it is booming as it has an edge over its competitors – the pork, chicken and beef industries. “Fish farming is more efficient,” said Hal Kane, a staff researcher of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

Growing a kilogram of beef in the feedlot typically takes seven kilograms of feed. And although chicken is the most efficient of the land-raised meats, it still takes an estimated 2.2 kilograms of feed to yield a kilogram of chicken.

In comparison, fish need two kilograms of less feed per kilogram of live-weight gain. Fish, suspended in the water, do not have to burn calories trying to heat their bodies, Kane explained.

But fish farming shares many of the problems of the livestock and poultry industries, according to Kane. Each depends on the same inputs – feed, water and land – to grow its produce.

“For aquaculture, the required land is often expensive coastal, lakefront, or riverfront property. There is competition for the grain used for feed, which could go instead to human consumption,” Kane said.

As with other meats, farmed fish produce wastes that have to be either dispensed of or used.

Where have all our fish gone?