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TURNING POINT: Fish Shortage: Back to Square One

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NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews / 07 May) — Of the shortages of prime commodities that have bedeviled us, nothing beats the tragic irony of our shortage of fish.

With a total coastline of 36,289 kilometers, the third longest among sovereign states, we ought to have enough fish to feed our people.

The coastal waters are host to the dynamic ecosystem of the corals, the sea grass, estuaries, and mangroves, which are the breeding, spawning and nurseries of various species of fish and crustaceans. The waters are, thus, the richest of fishing grounds across the archipelago.

But why did we come to the point of importing fish, such as the common galunggong (round scad) from China at one time or another?

Galunggong used to abound in Manila Bay and, thus, has become the staple, most affordable fish for the National Capital Region.

Unfortunately, galunggong is getting scarce in Manila Bay; has, apparently, migrated to the West Philippine Sea, harvested by state-supported Chinese militia fishers, and sold to the Filipinos.

What is really happening to the fisheries industry of the Philippines?

Fish is the Filipino people’s principal source of protein and securing fish supply is, therefore, vital from the viewpoint of food security

As early as the 1990s, the government borrowed millions from the Asian Development Bank in launching the Fisheries Resource Management Program (FRMP) to examine the real state of the fishery resource, especially in near shore or municipal waters, where over one million fishers were primarily dependent. The program aimed to delve into the problems, get a science-based picture of the fisheries industry and come up with policy measures. 

Teams of marine and fishery scientists from the academe were commissioned to undertake resource and environmental assessment (REA) of 12 bays, ports and other known fishing grounds across the country.

I happened to lead the marine and fishery experts from the Mindanao State University. Our team was tasked to conduct REAs of Panguil Bay, Gingoog Bay, Butuan Bay, and Davao Gulf.

We found that all the all the study areas were overfished resulting to the depletion of the fishery resource. One primary contributor to the depletion is the intrusion of commercial fishing vessels in municipal waters, using among others, trawls and muro ami fishing method.

The competition of commercial fishers with their highly destructive gears, as well as the hit-and-run dynamite fishers, caused a precarious dip in the catch of the local fishers, which, in desperation, tempted many to use fine mesh net, and worse, dynamites and poison, too, to increase their catch, only to realize that at the end they have nothing more to catch.

In Panguil Bay, a natural habitat of the penaied shrimp, sugpo, stationary filter nets were and are still being installed to this day by moneyed individuals, along routes of water currents that capture effectively the crustacean and other organisms including their eggs during tidal ingress. This leads to diminishing catch and loss of income to small fishermen in the bay.

Trawls, dynamite and poison destroy the coral and other near shore habitats, depleting further the marine resource and sinking the fishermen deeper into poverty.

The waters and some fish samples in Davao Gulf and Butuan Bay, particularly near the mouth of rivers and ports were found to have traces of heavy metals like mercury, lead and cadmium. In ports and nearby factories, oil slick was a common sight.

The REA findings in Mindanao hardly differed from those in other bays and fishing grounds. The primary recommendations were the followings:

  1. Enforce laws and stop illegal fishing. This could be achieved by strengthening the capacities of the Coast Guards (CG), the Department of Agriculture Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA-BFAR), and Local Government Units (LGUs) with more patrol boats and communication facilities and equipment. The three enforcement agencies may strategically join forces to do the task.
  2. Empower the LGUs by training them in crafting coastal resource management plan and program and in policy making along resource and environmental protection and pollution control.
  3. Adopt the policy and practice of closed and open season for certain fisheries, to protect the species during the breeding and nursery period.
  4. Accelerate the restoration and regeneration of damaged habitats to replenish fish stock by allocating certain parts of the municipal waters for the operation and maintenance of marine protected areas (MPAs).
  5. Train and involve the coastal communities in the management and protection of MPAs.
  6. Control the number and stop the entry more fishers into the fishing ground via registration of fishers and fishing boats, and diverting some fishers to land-based livelihood opportunities.
  7. Reduce fish capture effort and promote fish culture production in seawater and inland.

We don’t know how many of the recommendations were adopted and have been in place. But the fact that we continue to this day to suffer from the scarcity of fish only shows that we hardly make a dent to the problems the government tried to address 30 years ago. 

In fact, some problems have worsened. Particularly in urban areas, heavy load of pollution from domestic and industrial wastes render coastal waters literally dead, forcing fish population to move to cleaner environs. The fish kill phenomenon is always obtaining in heavily polluted waters; and the fish that survive in such toxic surrounding are hazardous to health.

Moreover, massive reclamation projects adversely affect fish productivity of surrounding areas. It is because reclamation activities spread silts that will smother corals and sea grass and also block sunlight and impair the productive capacity of primary producers.

Yet DA-BFAR, in response, apparently, to the quest for food security has been distributing motorized small fishing boats and nets to augment municipal  fishers’ catch and income, forgetting that the near shore sea has less and less fish to offer. Nowadays, only the bigger oceanic fish are still relatively abundant. But they are far, far away.  To hunt them requires bigger vessels, more sophisticated fishing gears and equipment, more expensive fuel and more time.

We are back to square one.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan, Ph.D., is retired professor and former chancellor of Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental, Philippines.)

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