The recent Philippine-Taiwan row over a fishing incident, which unfortunately led to one elderly Taiwanese fishermen getting killed, drew light on the growing regional fishing and maritime jurisdictional disputes coming in the wake of China’s illegal virtual occupation of Bajo de Masinloc in the West Philippine Sea.
The incident, which occurred in a body of water separating Batanes and Babuyan Islands off northern Luzon, shows greater resolve and commitment on the part of our maritime law enforcement agencies in curbing poaching and illegal fishing in Philippine waters. It also drew attention to the increasing significance we are attaching to our seas, especially our exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which we have long underutilized and which foreigners have long exploited.
While this development is very encouraging, greater efforts in other fronts have to be done too in order to ensure that our people will benefit from the bountiful harvest offered by the waters all around us.
According to Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), the Philippines has 2.2 million square kilometers of territorial water area, including our EEZ. This is aside from our close to 750,000 hectares of inland water resources, such as lakes, rivers, swamps and fishponds. Indeed, we are one of the most endowed in terms of fisheries resources. In 2010, we are the world’s 3rd largest producer of aquatic plants (including seaweed) and 10th largest producer of fish, crustaceans and mollusks. In 2011, our fisheries sector contributed 1.9 % and 2.2% at current and constant 2000 prices, respectively, to our total Gross Domestic Product. This is equivalent to P183.1 billion for current prices and P130.77 billion for constant prices. While these may seem rosy, it still fares less compared to other countries which are not even maritime and archipelagic in nature to begin with.
We fish less, so others can come?
Our fishing industry is made up of more than 1.6 million fishing operators, of which more than 1.3 million are focused into municipal fishing – this means fishing in our inland water resources, or within 15 km from our coast, using fishing vessels of less than 3 gross tons or fishing without the use of any fishing vessel at all. Aquaculture fishing comes second with more than 220,000 operators. Finally, we have commercial fishing operators who number only over 16,000. This means that we have more people waiting weeks or months to harvest fish in fishponds and fish pens (which are increasingly blamed for aggravating flooding) than those venturing out into the sea, especially in our EEZ, to catch boatloads fish in one day.
For instance, in Region II, which includes the waters of Batanes and offshore Cagayan and Isabela in the north, 2007 figures from BFAR reveal that we only have 68 commercial operators with 111 fishing vessels operating in such a vast expanse of bountiful sea. And with limited maritime law enforcement projection, it is no wonder many foreign fishermen, notably Taiwanese, are enticed to fish in the area.
Down south and west, in Region IV-B, which includes the Kalayaan Islands and the rest of Palawan, the same situation can be found: We only have 259 operators with 455 fishing vessels against another wide expanse of water. This area teeming with marine life again serves as a magnet for illegal foreign fishermen, notably Chinese and Vietnamese.
Another irony is the fact that while we are a major fish producer, we also import substantial amounts of fish and fisheries products. As of 2011, we exported 214,055 metric tons (MT), but imported 214,330 MT in turn. Although the FOB value of our exports overshadow that of our imports, the nagging question remains – why do we even have to import such amount of fisheries products in the first place?
Among the main fisheries products we import include chilled/frozen tuna, mackerel and prawn feeds. And lo and behold, in terms of value, more than half of our country’s fish imports come from countries with which we have existing maritime disputes, notably China (24%), Taiwan (16%), and Vietnam (14%). Taiwan, for instance, supplies us 6.7% of our prawn feeds and 14% of our chilled/frozen tuna. You may even ask: are we are importing fish caught in our very own waters?
Your fisherfolk needs you!
This brings us to the need to address persistent issues that prevent us from maximizing the wealth we can derive from our maritime endowment.
The first is greater state support for the fisheries sector, especially commercial fishing. To many local fisherfolk, the EEZ is more of an abstract “far” and “out there” concept. This is because we do not have as much local fishermen going out into this area to fish. Hence, we do not have a bigger natural constituency that will strongly protest and denounce foreign intrusion into these waters as compared to our neighbors, such as Taiwan. Hence, we have to entice greater investment in our commercial fishing.
Public-private partnerships to extend loans or subsidies for the construction of better fishing vessels capable of harnessing the resources of our EEZ can prove to be worthy initiatives. Such undertakings can, for instance, target fishing cooperatives or communities in frontline areas such as Batanes, Cagayan and Palawan. This will address overfishing in coastal waters, increase the income of our local fishermen, and offer them more relief in their fishing expeditions knowing they are using more seaworthy ships. This may even spur a homegrown shipbuilding industry that can start with fishing vessels.
Secondly, we have to step up our efforts in guarding our seas against foreign poachers. The recent incident in the Balintang Channel which saw Taiwan overreacting should not deter our maritime law enforcement people from fulfilling their mandate. Malacañang already extended apologies despite the fact that an investigation is still taking place and the exact circumstances surrounding the case are yet to be accounted for. Weak or inadequate maritime law enforcement is an invitation to poachers and foreign illegal fishermen.
To address this, the Coast Guard, BFAR and other deputized agencies should be equipped with better hardware to conduct arrests and apprehensions and serve as a deterrent against poachers. Greater coordination between these maritime agencies should also be effected to economize and make more efficient the dispensation of their common duties.
Better coordination between local fishermen and maritime law enforcement agencies should also be instituted to thwart foreign illegal fishing. It must be remembered that it was a local fisherman who reported the Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef in 1994. Local fishermen can report foreign illegal fishing activities to concerned authorities or seek immediate assistance when they are being harassed by foreign maritime vessels while engaged in fishing in Philippine waters.
There is an impression that the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) intervenes, in behalf of foreign governments, to facilitate the release of illegal foreign fishermen, waiving of fines and penalties and even return of their vessels. This affects the morale of maritime law enforcement agencies which are already doing their best, despite of hardware limitations. This is especially so if those freed were repeat offenders. Being a responsible member of the community of nations should not come at the expense of abetting the exploitation of our resources by other nationalities.
The government should also publish information on the number of arrests and apprehensions done by the various national and local maritime law enforcement agencies. Such a national database regularly updated shall include such information as where the arrest took place, what violations of Philippine fisheries laws were committed, and what happened to the case. As a demonstration of normal civilian jurisdiction, this is very important especially in our maritime areas being claimed by other countries.
Renewing our maritime consciousness
In the common interest of safeguarding the life, safety and property of our fishermen, the Philippines can enter into fisheries agreements with its neighbors. But such agreements should be fair, equitable and transparent, and should take into account the enjoyment of the bounty of the seas, including the sovereign rights to exploit living marine resources in our EEZ, by future Filipino generations. Likewise, such agreement should not be a substitute to enhancing our maritime law enforcement capability.
Finally, as an archipelagic country and a maritime nation, we have to revive our deep connection with the sea that perhaps centuries of colonial administration made us forget. Even continental countries like China and India are beginning to hone their maritime aspirations. We should re-appreciate the value of the sea, not only in terms of the resources it can give to us, but also the territorial integrity and national security challenges that comes along with it.
Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Research Assistant at the University of the Philippines Asian Center, where he is also taking up his MA in Asian Studies. The views expressed here are the author’s own. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org