SCIENCE: WHERE HAVE ALL OUR FISH GONE?

“Wild fish are the world’s most cost-efficient protein source.  They are renewable, low-carbon, and much cheaper to produce than chicken, pork, or beef.” – Atty. Gloria Estenzo Ramos of Oceana Philippines

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Give man a fish, so goes a popular Chinese saying, and he will eat fish for a day.  Teach him how to fish, and he will fish or his lifetime.

“If we don’t watch out, this adage may soon become obsolete,” warns Jethro P. Adang, the new director of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) Foundation, Inc.  “We are fishing our waters to the limit!”

“Like the other vital resources such as forests, Philippine fisheries are about to collapse – a victim of the almost unabated plunder of the commons,” he deplores.

As defined, the commons encompasses unoccupied land and all waters which are considered God-given set of resources for all people to consume as much as needed.  But these resources appear to have been abused to the point of exhaustion.

Despite the country’s vast marine resources – 220 million hectares of coastal and oceanic territorial water area – the Philippines is now experiencing a shortfall in fish supply.  Last year, the country imported about 17,000 metric tons of “galunggong” or round scad, mostly from China and Vietnam.

This is unthinkable, indeed.  “The fisheries sector is one of the most important sources of food and livelihood in the country,” said Dr. Reynaldo V. Ebora in his presentation during the 12th Annual Meeting and Scientific Convention of Outstanding Young Scientists.  “Fish is the country’s second staple food next to rice.”

The condensed version of Ebora’s paper was published in The PCAARRD Monitor, the bi-annual publication of the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development.  His co-authors were Ernesto O. Brown, Mari-ann M. Acedera, Dalisay DG. Fernandez, Fezoil Luz C. Decena, Meliza F. Abeleda, and Ma. Adela C. Corpuz.

“Although its share to the gross domestic product is a mere 2%, the gross value added at constant prices of the industry amounted to P123 billion,” he said.  “The Philippines ranked 8th among the top fish producing countries in the word in 2014 with its total production of 4.7 million metric tons or about 2.4% of the total world fisheries production.”

But the production is waning.  Last year, the total volume of fisheries production in the country went down by 1.04% compared to the previous year’s level, according to the Philippines Statists Authority (PSA).  Output reductions were noted in commercial (6.89%) and municipal (1.05%) fisheries. 

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) defines commercial fishing as the catching of fish with the use of fishing boats with a capacity of more than three gross tons for trade, business or profit beyond subsistence or sports fishing.

Municipal fishing covers fishing operation carried out with or without the use of a boat weighing 3 gross tons or less.  Inland municipal fishing, on the other hand, is the catching of fish, crustaceans, mollusks and all other aquatic animals and plants in inland waters like lakes, rivers, dams, and marshes.

Commercial fisheries comprised 21.97% of total fisheries production in 2017.  “The volume of commercial fisheries production reached to almost 947 thousand metric tons,” the PSA reported.  “It diminished by 6.89% from its level a year ago.”

About 26.12% of the total fisheries in the country 2017 was contributed by municipal fisheries.  “Municipal fisheries declined by 1.05% and came up with 1.13 metric tons during the year,” the PSA said.  “About 85.45% of the volume was credited to unloadings in municipal fish landing centers and the remaining 14.55% was contributed by inland fisheries subsector.”

Overfishing has been cited as the culprit for the shortage of fish supply in the country.  “Overfishing is the primary cause of dwindling fish population,” reminds Peter Weber, author of Worldwatch Institute report, Net Loss: Fish, Jobs and the Marine Environment.

Take the case of sardine, one of the most commercially important fish species.  “Overfishing was found to constrain sustainable development of the sardine industry,” Ebora said.  “Declining production was observed since 2009.  In 2011, a 50% decrease in sardine production was recorded.”

The tuna industry, which accounts for 12% of total fish production in the country, is not spared.  “Due to its high economic importance, rampant cases of juvenile fishing have been reported, which led to decline in tuna stock,” Ebora deplored. 

Same with sea cucumber.  Although the Philippines has the most diverse species of sea cucumber, its stocks are depleted due to unregulated harvesting.  “The open access nature of sea cucumber resources makes them vulnerable to overfishing,” Ebora said.

Majority of the fishing grounds in the country are overfished.  Recent reports said that ten out of 13 fishing grounds are under intense fishing pressure.  “Overfishing is the main issue, with today’s fishers ranging farther and trying harder to catch more – but there are more fishers and too few fish,” observes Gregg Yan, director for Communications for Ocean Philippines.

The Sogod Bay in Southern Leyte is a case in point.  Home to a variety of fishes, it is a major fishing ground for the 11 municipalities that surround it.  Mangko or frigate tuna (scientific name: Euthynnus affinis) is its major fishery resource. Seasonal influx of this shallow-water tuna species has provided food and livelihood to the people of Sogod and nearby towns.

“Frigate tuna used to abound in Sogod Bay and was a major source of income in the 70’s until the 90’s,” Dr. Salome Bulayog, an associate professor of the department of economics at the Visayas State University, told EDGE Davao.  “But today, fishermen could hardly have fish catch.  Fishermen have to spend longer time to catch a kilogram of fish; some even have to farther from the shore.”

Filipino environmentalists wondered: “Where have all our fish gone?” Vince Cinches, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, has this to say: “For a country known for marine biodiversity, there a very few fish left to catch.”

Fish importation seemed to be the possible solution.  “Short-term imports may actually put long-term food security and fisherfolk at risk,” believes Atty. Gloria Estenzo Ramos, of the Oceana Philippines, an organization working exclusively to protect and restore the oceans.  “The issues haunting fisheries management can only be solved through a more comprehensive and participatory plan.”

In the Philippines, there are four main laws governing the policy framework for the management of fisheries.  These include the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 (Republic Act 8550) and its amendment (RA 10654); Local Government Code of 1991 (RA 7160); Agriculture Fisheries Modernization Act of 1998 (RA 8435); and National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 1992 (RA 7856).

“The Philippine Fisheries Code is the primary legislation that sets out the overarching policies and objectives to be pursued in the management of fisheries,” Ebora explained.  “It also sets the power to regulate municipal and commercial fisheries, aquaculture and postharvest activity, create fisheries reserve, protect fisheries habitats, and to impose sanctions.”

In support of fishery management policies, the Fisheries Code also “provides for the establishment of regulations addressing access to fishery resources and declaration of closed fishing seasons and catch ceilings for conservation and ecological purposes – based on available evidence.”

For its part, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) has been doing its part in conducting empirical evidences from scientific studies that showed alarming declines in fishery productivity.

Sardine was one of the focus of a DOST-commissioned study.  The collapse of sardine population prompted the ban on commercial fishing during spawning season for three months (from December 1 to March 1) per year for a period of three years to counter the effect of overfishing.

Results from studies conducted in the Zamboanga Peninsula – the center of the country’s sardine industry – showed that there was an overall increase in the landed fish catch of sardines after the closed season months: for commercial fishery, 6%, 13% and 29% in the first, second and third years of implementation; for municipal fishery, 33%, 37, and 6%, respectively.

Also conducted was a study on yellow fin tuna, which covers majority of fish catch in Philippine waters.  Results revealed that the Philippine yellow fin tunas are different from that of the Western and Central Pacific.

“More improvements are still needed to raise tuna production that is anchored on sustainable development,” Ebora reported.

Fishery experts from all over the world contend that one possible solution to the dwindling fish catch in the open seas is by adopting the so-called “blue revolution.”

The Economist explained it in this manner: “On land, the green revolution allowed dramatic increases in crop production, with increased mechanization, and improved pest control and soil fertility through the addition of herbicides, pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers.”

If green is to crops, then blue is to fisheries.  “The blue revolution has seen companies breeding fish to improve traits such as their growth rate, conversion of feed into flesh, resistance to disease, tolerance of cold and poor water, and fertility,” the London-based magazine said.

Blue revolution actually refers to aquaculture, the farming of marine animals.  Actually, it’s not a new thing.  The Philippines has been practicing it.  The Philippine Fisheries Profile of 2015 showed aquaculture fisheries produced greater proportion of the catch at 50.5%; municipal followed (with contribution of 26.2%) and then commercial fisheries (23.3%).

As of 2016, 1.3 million Filipinos are engaged in fishing.