Philippine fisheries

Top officials with private interests spoil effort to track big fishers

Lian Buan, Iya Gozum

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Top officials with private interests spoil effort to track big fishers


EXCLUSIVE: Part 1 | Gamaliel Cordoba, who headed the NTC under Duterte, has a personal stake in commercial fishing because of his family’s business. During his time, the commission stopped issuing service numbers for trackers that would prevent unregulated fishing.

Top officials with private interests spoil effort to track big fishers

EXCLUSIVE: Part 1 | Gamaliel Cordoba, who headed the NTC under Duterte, has a personal stake in commercial fishing because of his family’s business. During his time, the commission stopped issuing service numbers for trackers that would prevent unregulated fishing.

BY Lian Buan, Iya Gozum

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and Department of Agriculture (DA) fought hard from 2021 to 2022 to implement a system that would track commercial fishing vessels at sea. It is a worldwide standard to prevent illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

A Rappler investigation, however, reveals that those efforts were hampered by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), which, at the time, was headed by a person with private interests in a commercial fishing company.

Gamaliel Cordoba, the NTC chairperson during that period, is married to Monica Elena Cordoba, whose family partly owns the commercial fishing company Mercidar Fishing Corporation (Mercidar). Monica serves as the chairperson and president of Mercidar, which benefited from NTC memoranda.

The NTC’s actions that spoiled rigorous implementation of the tracking system were backed by Cordoba’s fellow Ateneo Law alumnus, then-solicitor general Jose Calida.

When all of this was happening in 2022, Cordoba awarded a P6.2-million contract to Vigilant Investigative and Security Agency to provide security services for the NTC. Vigilant used to be wholly owned by Calida and his family until they divested in 2019, when they were being scrutinized for conflict of interest, but his son Josef Calida remained to be the company’s vice president for legal, their 2022 General Information Sheet shows.

All of these happened under the Rodrigo Duterte administration. The new Ferdinand Marcos Jr. administration, which took over the reins of power in mid-2022, has reversed policies and is now pushing for a slightly limited implementation of the tracking system, although this seems to have been influenced in part by international pressure.

Rappler looked at government records and talked to fisherfolk, advocates, and bureaucrats. Our three-month investigation reveals a situation where private and political interests bubble up in a David vs. Goliath fight for rights to fish in Philippine waters.

It’s a desperate situation that sees the “commercial fishing industry successfully pushing back against environmental policies that have been there for decades,” one of our sources said.

Fighting the Vessel Monitoring System

The tracking system that regulates illegal, unreported, and unregulated or IUU fishing is called the Vessel Monitoring System or VMS. It is mandated by Republic Act 10645, which amended the 1998 Fisheries Code. Implementation of the VMS was further strengthened by Fisheries Administrative Order (FAO) No. 266.

As soon as FAO 266 was passed in 2020, making implementation imminent, commercial fishing companies began preparing to fight the regulation in court. They claim the system violates their constitutional right to protect trade secrets.

VMS. Vessel monitoring system is a worldwide practice that ensures sustainability of resources by monitoring big fishing operators’ movement and catch at sea.

On January 22, 2021, Malabon Regional Trial Court Judge Zaldy Docena issued a preliminary injunction against the VMS, giving a Round 1 win to the commercial fishers who filed the case: Royale Fishing Corp (from Malabon), Bonanza Fishing Market Resources (from Navotas) and R.B.L Fishing Corp (from Puyo, Palawan). All companies have a history of being apprehended for fishing violations. 

Royale was apprehended in 2021 for illegal use of super lights, while Bonanza was apprehended the same year in Palawan waters for carrying documents that were spurious or not certified true copies. Meanwhile, four commercial vessels of RBL were caught in 2019 for fishing within municipal waters. 

In March 2024, the Philippine Coast Guard apprehended two fishing vessels of Royale for purse seine fishing within the municipal waters of Cuyo, Palawan. 

Only six days after the preliminary injunction, Cordoba, as the head of NTC at the time, issued a memorandum to all regional directors to suspend the issuance of Maritime Mobile Service Identity numbers or MMSI, unique numbers assigned to identify each fishing vessel. The number is used to track and monitor vessels through the VMS trackers. 

“In view of the writ of preliminary injunction…you are hereby directed to suspend the issuance of MMSI until further orders,” Cordoba said in a memorandum dated January 28, 2021.

The Cordoba family owns 40% of Mercidar through Monica and two other members of the family, whom we have verified through family photos they uploaded on their social media accounts. Mercidar is a company also involved in a court case contesting small fishers’ preferential rights over municipal waters. 

Rolando Ligon Jr., according to the company’s general information sheet as of 2023, owns 30% of Mercidar. Douglas Michael Mallillin, who was former deputy commissioner of the NTC under Cordoba, owns the remaining 30%.

By June 2021, Judge Docena gave the commercial fishers a decisive win. He declared FAO 266 or the VMS unconstitutional and made the injunction against the system permanent.

Insisting that a lower court injunction was not enough to stop the implementation of a law, the BFAR chief at the time, Eduardo Gongona, continued to write commercial fishers to prepare for installation of the VMS, our documents show. BFAR went to the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) for a legal opinion, which they secured favorably.

On June 30, 2021, Assistant Solicitor General Ellaine Rose Sanchez-Corro and Senior State Solicitor Melanie Pimentel told BFAR in a legal opinion that nothing less than a Supreme Court injunction could stop the implementation of the VMS. 

Gongona held on to that OSG opinion, and used it later as justification when the commercial fishers went back to Judge Docena’s court to cite Gongona for indirect contempt.

By this time, BFAR was continuing full implementation of the VMS, but Cordoba’s NTC had already suspended the issuance of the transceivers. 

On January 18, 2022, BFAR held a consultative meeting and warned of sanctions if the VMS requirement was not complied with. The NTC was present in that meeting, and, based on OSG’s record, the NTC wrote them a letter on January 25, 2022, to seek advice, even though the OSG had already given a prior opinion that full implementation of the VMS was allowed. The NTC’s legal department told Rappler that it “never received” the OSG’s June 30, 2021, legal opinion.

Calida’s intervention

For NTC’s newest request for a legal opinion, Calida entered the picture. Calida reversed his associates and quickly signed a legal opinion on January 26, 2022, telling BFAR and NTC that they should desist from implementing the VMS.

“This departs from the earlier opinion,” said Calida, who told the BFAR and NTC that “the writ of injunction is immediately executory and may not be stayed simply by appeal.” The appeal refers to a petition that, at the time, was already filed at the Supreme Court, challenging Judge Docena’s ruling. 

Only a month before this legal opinion, in December 2021, Cordoba awarded a P6.27 million contract to Vigilant Investigative and Security Agency to provide security services to the NTC for 2022. 

Calida, his wife, and children divested from Vigilant in 2019 after they were criticized for bagging hundreds of millions of pesos in government contracts while Calida was still solicitor-general. 

Vigilant’s new owners are Dominic Edgard Angeles Cabangon and Benjamin del Villar Ramos, the executives of the erstwhile CNN Philippines, but business records show that Calida’s son Josef remained to be company vice president for legal with a .001% share. Vigilant also retained the same corporate secretary.

Armed with Calida’s opinion, Edgardo Cabarios, the NTC deputy commissioner at the time, repeated Cordoba’s orders. In a memorandum on January 31, 2022, he told regional directors not to issue any MMSI. “All NTC regional offices are hereby directed to comply with the permanent injunction,” said Cabarios.

This did not faze the fishing regulators because documents showed that on March 29, 2022, the Department of Agriculture (DA) secretary then, William Dar, issued a memorandum to BFAR and told the bureau to “continue the full implementation of the VMS to prevent, deter, and eliminate illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.” 

Dar echoed the earlier opinion of the associate solicitors. “Except the Supreme Court, no court can issue a writ of preliminary injunction against lawful actions of government agencies that enforce environmental laws or prevent violations thereof,” said Dar.

This assertion from Dar, and previously from Calida’s associates, is found in the Supreme Court’s Rules of Procedure for Environment Cases for the extraordinary remedy Writ of Kalikasan, a unique innovation from the Philippine judiciary to protect a Filipino’s constitutional right to a healthy environment.

Cordoba has not responded to Rappler’s requests for comment on this story, particularly his stake in an issue concerning commercial fishers when his family owns a commercial fishing company. We emailed Cordoba on February 29, which his office at the Commission on Audit (COA) acknowledged. We followed up on March 25, and April 1, but did not receive a response. We will update this story Cordoba replies. The NTC’s legal department told Rappler that its “position is self-explanatory.” 

Cordoba is now the chairperson of the COA. He was appointed by Marcos to replace Calida, who served there only briefly after his stint in the OSG. 

This move by the Cordoba-Calida or NTC-OSG tandem to stop the VMS, even if it ran counter to the position of the agriculture department, is reminiscent of the ABS-CBN franchise issue. At the time, the NTC and OSG insisted on shutting down the broadcast channel even if the Department of Justice indicated there was legal basis for ABS-CBN to continue operating. 

The clash was an “atrophy” or a weakening in the government’s will to prevent IUU fishing, public interest lawyers later told the SC when they joined the appeal in the High Court representing the interest of small fishers. The SC case has undergone oral arguments and is still pending.

Rappler asked Calida for comment through representatives on March 26. A lawyer for the family acknowledged our message, but no longer responded.

People, Person, Fun
COMPANY PARTY. Gamaliel Cordoba, former NTC chairperson and now COA chairperson, attends the party of his family’s company, Mercidar Fishing Corporation. Photo from Monica Cordoba’s Facebook
Shift in position

BFAR and the DA almost got nowhere because Gongona was even cited in contempt by Judge Docena in June 2022, and was fined P30,000. Things only started to change under the Marcos administration.

Now under Marcos’ solicitor general, Menardo Guevarra, the OSG has shifted largely to the side of the DA and BFAR, radically changing the game.

“The OSG advised the BFAR and the NTC as follows: respect the writ of preliminary injunction against the implementation of FAO 266 in areas covered by the injunction order of the RTC until the SC sets it aside; but vigorously implement FAO 266 everywhere else in the country,” Guevarra told Rappler.

“Both BFAR and NTC are now on the same page, and compliance by commercial fishers has vastly improved,” Guevarra said.

This was reiterated by BFAR. “Tuloy naman ang installation namin at ang NTC ay part ng process,” BFAR spokesperson Nazer Briguera told Rappler. (The installation continues and the NTC is part of the process.)

Even the Supreme Court noticed the OSG’s shift. Associate Justice Maria Filomena Singh remarked during oral arguments in October 2023 that the OSG was making “new arguments.” Guevarra could only reply: “Please forgive me for doing so, I was not the solicitor general [at the time].”

Inside Malacañang, the shifting of positions was less smooth. Initially in March 2023,  Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin suspended the VMS, only to backpedal three months later to say what Guevarra is also saying: implement the VMS, except for the companies who won the injunction.

Appeasing the European Union

According to Dennis Calvan, a director at the conservation group Rare Philippines and member of the government’s fisheries advocacy council, the VMS is the only cause for small fishers that the Marcos government seems to be willing to stand for “because of the European Union.” Calvan said the EU factor may have provided the incentive to the Marcos administration to stand by the VMS. 

In 2014, the EU issued a yellow card to the Philippines over IUU fishing. This is equivalent to a threat to ban fishery products from the Philippines. In 2023, exports of fish, crustaceans, molluscs, aquatic invertebrates, and meat to the EU amounted to $50.30 million, according to data from the Philippine Statistics Authority. 

If the Philippines does not do anything to combat IUU, it risks becoming a pariah in the EU – the world’s biggest market for fish. The country then amended the Fisheries Code in 2015 to strictly enforce the VMS, which appeased the EU into lifting the yellow card. 

As early as 2015, Calvan said commercial fishers had threatened to challenge the constitutionality of the VMS provision in the Fisheries Code. But due to delays, like budgeting for technology, the enforcement of the VMS only actually began much later, prompting the constitutional challenge from commercial fishers in 2020.

The court cases reached the EU’s radar.

“This issue with the VMS does not align with our commitment to the EU. The EU found out about it, and there is an internal memorandum from the EU that they almost issued us a red card,” said Calvan. 

A red card means exclusion of the country’s fish from the EU market. The Alliance of Philippine Fishing Federations Inc. issued a public statement in June 2023, calling on Marcos not to believe that a red card was on the horizon. APFFI is composed of most commercial fishing operators in the country, and its Allfish partylist nominee to the 2019 elections, Arnold Naval, was the lawyer for the commercial fishers in the Supreme Court VMS case. 

Arnold Naval is the son of Domingo Naval, former owner of Mercidar. Mercidar was incorporated in 1973 by the Naval family, which includes Monica Cordoba’s mother. We asked APFFI for its side, but got no response. We will update this story once we do.

Clothing, Pants, T-Shirt
FAMILY. A Facebook post from 2016 shows Mercidar’s former owner and incorporator Domingo Naval (far left) and the commercial fishers’ VMS lawyer Arnold Naval (far right) during the 2016 elections campaign of Allfish partylist.

Was there indeed an internal EU memo and did the Philippine government act because of a possible trade sanction? 

“This exchange of letters or documents between the European Commission and the Republic of the Philippines is not public and we cannot disclose it. The European Commission implements the provisions of the IUU Regulation through decisions published in the EU Official Journal,” a spokesperson of the European Commission told Rappler.

Marcos has shown a tendency to please international partners, and advocates have used this as leverage – for instance, the continued call of the human rights community for the EU to dangle GSP Plus, or tariff perks, to compel him to scrap the drug war. 

Were it not for the EU, would the Marcos administration still have sided with small fishers? (To be concluded) –

NEXT: Part 2 | Big fishers encroach on small fisherfolk’s municipal waters

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  1. ET

    Thanks to Rappler for this “three-month investigation,” which “reveals a situation where private and political interests bubble up in a David vs. Goliath fight for rights to fish in Philippine waters.” It shows “… a desperate situation that sees the ‘commercial fishing industry successfully pushing back against environmental policies that have been there for decades.'” Such a report is necessary for the Filipino people to know about one of the corrupt practices of the Duterte Administration. Thanks again to Rappler, Lian Buan, and Iya Gozum.

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.
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Iya Gozum

Iya Gozum covers the environment, agriculture, and science beats for Rappler.