Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources

Dismissal of BFAR director may stall tracking of fishing vessels, advocates warn

Iya Gozum

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Dismissal of BFAR director may stall tracking of fishing vessels, advocates warn

NET. A fisherman in Navotas arranges his fish net among the docked boats on land. In the background are medium-sized vessels operated by some other Navotas residents.

Franz Lopez/Rappler

The dismissal could 'wrongfully' associate government's mandate to track fishing vessels to corruption, says a fisherfolk advocate

MANILA, Philippines – The dismissal on April 17 of Demosthenes Escoto as Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) Director could create a “chilling effect” on the bureaucracy, related sectors, and affect government’s tracking of fishing vessels at sea, conservation group Oceana warned on Thursday, April 25.

Advocates fear this “may stall the full implementation of vessel monitoring measures, strict enforcement of the Philippine Fisheries Code…and the science-based and participatory fisheries management mechanism under the Fisheries Management Areas system,” Oceana said.

“While we acknowledge the Ombudsman decision, we commend the efforts of Demosthenes Escoto to achieve 100% compliance of commercial fishing vessels on vessel monitoring system,” said Gloria Estenzo Ramos, Oceana vice president.

The dismissal could also “wrongfully” associate government’s mandate to track fishing vessels to corruption, a fisherfolk advocate said.

“The dismissal of BFAR Director Escoto will wrongfully create that impression that the VMS is tainted with alleged corruption, thus it is wrong, despite VMS being an internationally recognized tool to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,” Dennis Calvan, co-founder of Pangingisda Natin Gawing Tama Network, told Rappler.

“The illegal fishers and their influential partners are obviously the ones who will gain from this,” Calvan added.

In a 22-page decision dated February 5, 2024, the Ombudsman found Escoto guilty of “grave misconduct and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of service.”

This stemmed from a 2022 complaint citing irregularities in the procurement of transceivers for BFAR’s implementation of vessel monitoring system.

The Ombudsman said that Escoto’s actions, who was chairman of the bids and awards committee in BFAR at that time, culminated in the award of “a very favorable contract” to a British company.

The government enforces the vessel monitoring system (VMS) to track the speed, location, and activities of fishing vessels. This is standard practice worldwide to curb illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

Aside from making fishing sustainable, tracking vessels’ activities could also detect those who encroach on the 15-kilometer municipal water zone reserved for small fishers.

“It is a huge deterrence to illegal fishing happening in our overfished fishing grounds, which has caused fish population to dwindle,” Ramos said. “Municipal waters are reserved for our artisanal fisherfolk and their families yet they remain among the poorest of the vulnerable sectors.”

In 2015, the Philippine government amended the Fisheries Code to instate VMS. To date, three commercial fishing companies contesting government tracking have won at court, exempting them from the implementation of the VMS.

Department of Agriculture Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr. installed Isidro Velayo as officer-in-charge after Escoto’s dismissal.

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Iya Gozum

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