PH oceans in crisis: The sad state of small fisherfolk

On Friday, May 30, a day before National Fisherfolk's Day, fisheries reform advocates will march to Malacañang to submit to President Aquino a proposal on how to save Philippine marine resources

PLIGHT OF THE SMALL FISHERFOLK. Municipal fishermen are catching a 4th of what they had been catching from Philippine seas in the 1970s

MANILA, Philippines – When Ruperto “Ka Uper” Aleroza was just a boy, his fisherman father would walk to the beach, throw a net and catch fish.

From the abundant waters of Batangas, his family could easily earn the equivalent of P1,000 in a day. They could afford to set aside some fish for their own meals and use the profit for the rest of the catch to send the kids to school. 

Ka Uper followed his father’s footsteps and became a fisherman at the age of 18. Now he is 61 and things couldn’t be more different.

Ngayon, kailangan na namin mangutang sa iba para makabili ng makina at bangka at mas malayo. Mahabang oras, malaking gastos, maliit yung kita.” 

(Now, we need to borrow money so we can buy a machine for our boats and the fishing area is farther. It takes a long time, we spend a lot and we earn so little.)

He’s lucky if in a day he can earn in the hundreds. Even then, debts have to be paid. 

His story is the story of most small fisherfolk in the Philippines who, on a daily basis, face dwindling fish supply, polluted ocean waters, climate change, and the threat of displacement from their coastal homes.

Who are the small fisherfolk?

Small fisherfolk, according to the definition set by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), are those who use fishing boats of 3 gross tons or less. They are also known as municipal fisherfolk.

In 2011, there were more than 469,000 municipal fishing boats. Marine municipal fisherfolk caught more than 1.1 million metric tons of fish that year. The most common species of fish they catch are Frigate tuna (tulingan), Roundscad (galunggong), Indian sardines (tamban), anchovies (dilis), squid and Yellowfin tuna (tambakol).

Commercial fishing vessels, on the other hand, are bigger boats – more than 3 gross tons. While small fisherfolk are given priority access to fishing grounds within 15 kilometers from the shoreline, commercial fishing vessels can only fish beyond the 15 km zone reserved for the small fisherfolk.

Some local governments, however, allow the bigger vessels from 10.1 to 15 km from the shoreline. 

But enforcing these parameters is tricky because of the “free access” nature of the sea. It’s much harder to delineate boundaries in a medium that by its very nature shifts and flows.  

It’s led to a world of problems for small fisherfolk. Many commercial boats cross over to the small fisherfolk’s fishing grounds. Often, these vessels use large-scale fishing equipment such as trawlers or fine nets which catch everything in their path – whether mature or juvenile fish.

The result is overfishing and, consequently, dwindling fish catch for the small fisherfolk who were supposed to be given priority access to their own town’s marine resources.

In the 1970s, Filipino fisherfolk would catch 20 kilograms of fish a day. Now, they catch only around 4.76 kilograms a day – barely a 4th of the amount during the good old days. (READ: Want to feed the world? Save oceans first)

REBUILDING. A fisherman in Leyte builds a new boat to replace his old boat destroyed by Typhoon Yolanda. Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

Can overfishing be conclusively attributed to the commercial fisheries sector?

For starters, BFAR data shows that though around 99% of operators in 2002 were municipal fishermen, commercial fishermen raked in 48% – almost half – of total fish production that year, even if they made up only 1.2% of the total number of operators.

This may also explain why poverty incidence among fisherfolk is so high. Almost half (41.4%) of Filipino fisherfolk live below the poverty line, earning them the label, “poorest of the poor.”

Nature can’t keep up

Overfishing is what has forced some small fisherfolk to resort to illegal fishing practices like dynamite fishing and muro-ami, said Aleroza, whose advocacy for the welfare of small fisherfolk led him to serve as the current chairman of the Committee on Fisherfolk Settlement of the National Anti-Poverty Commission-Fisherfolk Council.

According to BFAR Director Asis Perez, some 10,000 incidents of dynamite fishing are still recorded everyday.

Illegal fishing practices used by some commercial fishing vessels are particularly devastating for fish stocks. Some common practices are the use of trawlers, fish nets with holes less than two centimeters, and payao, a fish aggregating device that uses bright lights to attract big populations of fish. 

These are destructive because they catch all kinds of fish, regardless of size and age. Catching juvenile fish reduces the ability of fish populations to replenish themselves.

According to the World Fish Center, fish are being caught at a level 30% above that  at which they are capable of replenishing themselves.

No wonder BFAR found out that 10 out of 13 major fishing grounds in the country have already been overfished. 

Overfishing is just one of the many threats to fish supply and the fisheries sector. 

Fish stocks – and the fisherfolk who depend on them – have to survive alarming ocean pollution levels and climate change. 

Hardly are there coral reefs in the country without plastic wrappers or bottles stuck in holes or crevices where fish used to live. Only around 5% of the country’s coral reefs are in excellent condition (White and Cruz-Trinidad, 1998). 

Pasay City collected 127 ten-wheeler trucks of floating garbage from Manila Bay in a span of just 4 days back in 2012. Manila Bay is considered one of the country’s major fishing grounds.

Climate change is causing ocean waters to warm up in unprecedented levels, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This can cause widespread coral death. 

The unabated accumulation of large amounts of carbon dioxide in the air is also affecting marine life. Oceans absorb around 25% of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere each year. When carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater, the acidity of oceans increase. Thus, seawater becomes corrosive to the shells and skeletons of many marine organisms.  

Living in the ‘no dwelling zone’

Another threat to fisherfolk is literally closer to home. A “no build zone” policy issued by the government as part of rehabilitation efforts after Super Typhoon Yolanda may not be in the best interest of fisherfolk.

The policy prohibited any structures from being built within 40 meters of the shoreline, recognizing the threat of storm surge and sea level rise to such buildings.

COASTAL HOMES. Most municipal fisherfolk live on the coasts in order to have easy access to their source of livelihood. Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

But in March, Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery Panfilo Lacson recommended a change in terms: from “no build zone” to “no dwelling zone.” 

This would allow buildings, such as resorts and other tourist establishments, within the 40 meters. But no one is allowed to live there. (READ: Leyte fishermen say no to no-build zone)

“This is a problem for tourism because what if there are investors who want beach resorts? How can you implement a no-build zone, so to be practical, let’s make it a no dwelling zone,” he Lacson in an interview on ANC. 

The statement was a slap on the face for Aleroza.  

Talagang mawawala kami ng hanapbuhay. Pag na-privatize iyon, may bakod na ‘yun, may bayad na ‘yun. Pag pumasok ka doon, may entrance fee ka na eh.

(We will really lose our livelihood. When the shore is privatized, they will put up a wall, they will charge fees. When you try to go inside, you have to pay an entrance fee.)

Most fishermen live on coasts in order to have easy access to the sea. This is where they bring their boats to shore and where they dry their catch.

The government should include small fisherfolk in making guidelines for the “no dwelling zone” policy, said a distraught Aleroza.

Some fisherfolk are willing to compromise, said Ariane Jaraplasan of NGOs for Fisheries Reform (NFR). 

“Based on our discussions with small fisherfolk, they are willing to relocate. They know the risk of living in the foreshore coastal areas. They’re willing to move 100 meters as long as they have access to the sea because that’s their source of livelihood,” she told Rappler.

Fisherfolk wishlist

Despite the daunting challenges, Aleroza believes it’s not too late to uplift the lives of fisherfolk and save Philippine oceans.

On May 30, a day before National Fisherfolk’s Day, he and other fisheries reform advocates will march to Malacañang Palace to submit to President Benigno Aquino III a proposal on how to save Philippine marine resources. 

Entitled “Roadmap to Recovery of Philippine Oceans,” the document was collaborated on by various fisherfolk groups; NGOs like Worldwide Fund for Nature, Greenpeace and Save Philippine Seas; and scientists from the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute and Conservation International. 

It details possible solutions to overfishing such as stronger enforcement of marine boundaries and capacity-building for local governments to protect marine resources.  

The creation of a Department of Fisheries is also another option being mulled by some advocates. Creating a dedicated department instead of just a bureau under the Department of Agriculture may mean bigger funding to beef up the sector.  

Priority must be given to bringing back healthy marine ecosystems, said Greenpeace Southeast Asia Oceans Campaigner Vince Cinches.

“Even if you develop the industry, you have to go back to the ecosystem from which the industry thrives. Address the problem of overfishing, address the problem of coral degradation, the problem of disappearing sea grass.”

Even if these solutions are implemented, Ka Uper knows he may never get to fish as his father once did.

Mahirap utusin ang kalikasan pero yung pagkasira ng tao sa kalikasan, kayang kontrol-in (It will be difficult to order nature around but destruction by humans can be controlled).” –

Filipino fishermen image from Shutterstock

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