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We often hear about the Philippines as the apex of the Coral Triangle, an area with the highest marine biodiversity composed of six countries in the Asia Pacific region. And the Philippines is actually considered the center of the center of marine biodiversity. This recognition should have given our government, and our people, the pride and motivation to take care of our vast natural marine wealth, a crucial source of food, livelihood, and nutrition for us Filipinos.
However, years of government neglect to safeguard our biodiversity and to restore our fish stocks across all regions and across major species of fish caught in our archipelago have brought about undue suffering to our artisanal fisherfolk and coastal communities. Most recently, in a reckless move that would further aggravate the problem, the Office of the Executive Secretary issued a memorandum suspending the implementation of a key policy instrument, Fisheries Administrative (FAO) Order No. 266 requiring the installation of vessel monitoring measures in commercial fishing vessels. This is despite its mandate to fully implement the Amended Fisheries Code and implementing regulations.
This memorandum was signed by Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin on March 13, 2023, and specifically addressed to the following five agencies: Department of Agriculture (DA), Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), Office of the Solicitor General, Department of Trade and Industry, and National Telecommunications Commission. This reversed after about five weeks its earlier memorandum directing the first two agencies – DA and BFAR – to implement FAO 266 all over the country pursuant to the recommendations of the Office of the Solicitor General in its Memorandum to the President on September 28, 2022 to fully implement the regulation, except for the three commercial fishing operators who are involved in a pending case.
The memorandum is regressive and contradicts the Amended Fisheries Code, the constitutional mandate for the state to protect its marine wealth, and our international obligations. Suspending the implementation of vessel monitoring measures undermines the state’s obligation to establish and strengthen its monitoring, control, and surveillance system, which in turn impedes the ability to enforce fishery laws effectively and efficiently.
Failure to deter illegal fishing, such as uncontrolled intrusion of commercial fishing inside municipal waters, resulted in overfishing and depletion of fish stocks, which caused immense poverty and hunger in our coastal communities. This lawlessness in the ocean and fisheries governance has also harmed our marine environment, our natural life support system, and our preventive and mitigating mechanisms against the disastrous impact of climate change.
Vessel monitoring measures are considered one of the effective measures to monitor fishing operations for fisheries management, especially in the 15-kilometer municipal waters. This is exceedingly important because most of our fishing grounds are overfished. Data from the Philippines Statistics Authority show that the volume of marine fisheries both commercial and municipal fisheries has been declining at least for the last decade. Data from the National Stock Assessment Program (2017) indicates that 80% of our fisheries stocks are highly exploited.
This is alarming considering that Filipinos are highly dependent on the consumption of seafood for their protein and other needed nutrients. According to the Fish in Nutrition Systems study conducted by MRAG Asia Pacific and the Philippine Department of Science and Technology-Food and Nutrition Research Institute (DOST-FNRI), seafood comprises almost half or 42.2% of our total animal protein intake and about 18% of our total protein intake (DOST-FNRI, 2020). The findings also show, however, that only 6 out of 10 Filipinos have adequate protein intake.
It is also worth noting that this move by the President can cost us the European Union’s Yellow Card, a perilous consequence for our seafood exports to other countries. The Philippines was previously slapped with the Yellow Card as a non-cooperating country in the global fight against illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing. This was lifted only in 2015 after we committed to undertake extensive reforms in our legal framework. We also pledged to guarantee that Philippine fishing vessels operating in areas regulated by RFMOs (Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, and International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas), as well as national and foreign vessels fishing in Philippine waters, are not allowed to engage in any fishing activity unless they comply with the vessel monitoring measures.
When we passed the Amended Fisheries Code, we pledged to implement new traceability regulations to ensure control over fishery and seafood products in the supply chain. However, it has been eight years since, and we have failed to fulfill our promise to ensure full real-time VMM coverage. There is only 58% compliance by commercial fishing vessels of this requirement as of date. Simply put, the remaining 42% of vessels are illegally fishing causing destruction of marine habitats, and at the same time, selling illegally caught fish to Filipinos who unaware about the source of their fish. The Philippines still falls short in combating IUU fishing mainly because of its abject failure to fully implement a system of transparency and traceability on our fishing vessels.
We call on President Marcos Jr. to immediately lift the suspension of the vessel monitoring measures implementation. The protection of municipal waters from the relentless intrusion of commercial fishing operations is paramount to restore our fisheries abundance. With the onset of climate crisis, science-based fisheries management and strict enforcement of our laws are our best chances for survival. We should expect no less from a government that should serve and protect its people. – Rappler.com
Atty. Rose Liza Eisma Osorio is Oceana’s Acting Vice President and also the international non-government organization’s Legal and Policy Director.