Galunggong imported from China may come from West Philippine Sea

MANILA, Philippines – The Department of Agriculture (DA) recently approved the importation of galunggong or round scad for local wet markets, citing "national food security," but the fish needed may have been swimming in Philippine seas all along.

Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) Director and Agriculture Undersecretary Eduardo Gongona explained to Rappler that local fishermen are unable to catch all the fish within municipal waters.

"Hindi kaya ng mga mangingisda na kunin lahat. Kapag hindi mo na-catch sa municipal waters, lalabas na sa territory. Posible na ang isda na import from China o ibang bansa ay galing pa dito sa Pilipinas, sa West Philippine Sea," Gongona said.

(Fishermen can't get them all. If you don't catch the fish within municipal waters, they would go out of the territory. It's possible that the imports from China or other countries are from here in the Philippines, from the West Philippine Sea.)

"Of course, the prices will be more expensive now when imported, even if that is possibly our fish," he added.

Fishermen have been unable to access fish-rich areas in the disputed West Philippine Sea like the Scarborough Shoal because Chinese boats have been fending them off. (READ: Duterte: China taking of PH fisherman's catch 'not outright seizure')

According to the Fisheries Code of the Philippines, local fishermen can fish freely within municipal waters or at most 15 kilometers from the shoreline. Commercial or larger fishing boats can only fish beyond municipal waters, or else face sanctions from BFAR.

The Philippines will import galunggong from China, Vietnam, and Taiwan to maintain a steady supply of fish, as closed fishing season nears.

"Hindi naman kumakain ng galunggong ang Chinese o ibang bansa, tayo lang," Gongona said. (The Chinese or other countries do not eat galunggong, only us.)

He said there are around 24 major fishing areas in the country. Most of the galunggong supplies come from Palawan, Zambales, Davao, and Zamboanga.

Possible solutions

To avoid future imports, Gongona suggested that commercial fishing boats be allowed to operate within municipal waters.

"Baka puwede i-allow ang commercial boats doon, pero dapat may mga conditions para hindi naman lugi ang maliliit na mangingisda. Sa local government pa rin siyempre ang final decision," he said.

(Maybe we can allow commercial boats there, of course with conditions so that small-time fishermen would not be shortchanged. Of course, the decision is still up to the local government.)

While Gongona admitted that this suggestion may receive resistance from many groups, he appealed to stakeholders to have an open mind.

He also said current laws and fishing limits must be revisited.

"We are letting catchable fish go under current policies," Gongona said.

He also suggested that local governments plant more mangroves and intensify efforts to arrest those who engage in dynamite fishing.

Fishing problems

According to latest data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), the fishing sector recently recovered from negative production growth from 2017. The sector grew 2.64% during the 2nd quarter of 2018, compared to the -1.06% recorded during the same period last year.

Graph from the Philippine Statistics Authority

Commercial fisheries (2.27%) and aquaculture (5.81%) pulled up the figure, while municipal fisheries (-2.46%) continued the downtrend.

"Of the major species, improvements in output were displayed by tilapia, skipjack, and seaweed with 0.15%, 0.51%, and 2.28%, respectively. However, reductions were traced from milkfish (0.34%), tiger prawn (0.05%), round scad (0.32%), and yellowfin tuna (0.06%)," the PSA said.

Gongona attributed the dismal figures to typhoons, destruction of coral reefs, illegal fishing, and climate change.

"Around 60% of our production comes directly from the sea. Only 40% comes from aquaculture. If we can reverse those figures, I think fisheries will improve because we have better control of the production process in aquaculture," Gongona said. – Rappler.com

Ralf Rivas

A sociologist by heart, a journalist by profession. Ralf is Rappler's business reporter, covering macroeconomy, government finance, companies, and agriculture.

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