For whom are our fishes? PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 30 November 2014 14:19



A couple of years ago, while sitting on a sandy beach on a Cebu island north of Malapascua, I had a thought-provoking conversation with an artisanal (non-motorized) fisherman. In response to my question on how his livelihood was going for him, he said that fish catch was getting lower and lower, like never before.

When I asked him if there was dynamite fishing in the area, he said the problem was really because the big fishing boats which used purse seines (giant fishing nets) had been entering the municipal waters.

This was against the law because municipal waters up to 15 kilometers from the coast line were only for use by small fishers. However, the big trawlers were not only catching most of the fish, they were dragging the baby fishes into their giant nets which trawled the bottom of the sea, thus reducing even further future harvests.

I asked him what the barangay-based Bantay Dagat (Sea Watch) was doing about it, and he said their barangay captain tried his best. However, when their kapitan tried to board one of these vessels, he ended up facing a gun. That was it.

So, I asked, what about the mayor? Have you tried to elevate your case? The mayor? He said that was part of the problem, she happened to own some of these fishing boats.

No wonder fishers are among the poorest of the poor in our country.

Today, I read in the papers that a bill has been passed by both houses of Congress to revise some provisions of the Philippine Fisheries Code. The item, which was in the business pages, said that members of the Alliance of Philippine Fishing Federations Inc. (APFFI), which has over 2,358 operators owning 6,371 commercial vessels, are opposing the bill. They claim that the bill favors irresponsible dynamite fishers and threatens to kill their businesses. Commercial fishing refers to the use of vessels weighing three tons or more.

I guess that with the invasion of our rich marine resources in the West Philippine Sea by China, these fishing vessels are depending more and more on municipal waters for their harvests, much of which are for export markets.

I have not had a chance to see a draft of the bill, and I do not know who the proponents are. It is interesting to note that it passed the House in one week, and the Senate in six.

However, it looks like the big fishers are mobilizing a powerful lobby to kill the bill. Let us hope that the bill, if revisions are to be made in bicameral committee, makes it clear for whom primarily are the fishes of Philippine waters. We have to ensure that there has to be a preferential option for the poor. This is a very complex problem that calls for the support of the Department of the Interior and Local Government which has administrative supervision over local governments, which in turn have authority over the municipal waters. And of course, the Department of Agriculture, of which the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) is a part.

During the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, fisheries, for once, was the bright star in the Department of Agriculture, delivering growth rates of 6% versus dismal growth in land-based crops.

For this we must credit retired Director Malcolm Sarmiento of BFAR. Sarmiento aggressively promoted fish farming through fish cages and aquaculture in the sea and on land. He also heavily promoted the establishment of fish sanctuaries, which enabled fishers to reap rich harvests within three years after fishing coops agreed to leave marine waters alone within a five-kilometer radius. He also promoted bottled sardines production in his home province of Zamboanga.

I once met the president of the fishing cooperative in Western Samar, in Talalora, Zumarraga, Sta. Margarita, Matobato, etc. The people of Matobato even traditionally value-add by processing fat mackerels into tinapa (smoked fish) which are now even reaching foreign markets. He told me that for several years the fishers in their area had been suffering from poor catch because of dynamite fishing and other illegal fishing methods. Three years after they got organized into coops and set up fish sanctuaries, they began to have rich fishing harvests.

Fisheries these days do not deliver such high growth numbers. Perhaps it is because Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala is so focused on achieving self-sufficiency in rice, a lost cause it seems to me, especially when the tariffs on rice are finally brought down with ASEAN integration, and we get swamped with cheaper rice from Thailand and Vietnam.

What will happen to our rice farmers? Is there enough time to reorient them perhaps into alternative production of higher-value crops, even of high grade rice such as brown, red and organic? Can the private sector mobilize for this the way Henry Lim Bon Liong has done with his specialty Dona Maria brand? It is hard to compete with cheaper rice from Thailand and Vietnam, which have natural irrigation waters from the Mekong River.

Does Secretary Alcala know what his mission should be? That it is not just a matter of output (production growth), but of outcomes (getting the farmers and fishers out of poverty)? Alcala has been there for four years, and there seems to be little decrease if any in poverty among the rural folk, who comprise the majority of the Philippine poor.

One wonders why Alcala is still at his post. Perhaps the President is impressed by how hard he works. But what we need is someone who works smart, not just hard. Alcala is not delivering the goods. We need fresh, new thinking in agriculture and fisheries; otherwise, we will continue to lag behind our neighbors in poverty reduction statistics. — Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and an independent development management consultant. She writes for BusinessWorld