Factors Causing Philippines' Fisheries to Collapse

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Give man a fish, so goes a very popular Chinese saying, and he will eat fish for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will fish for his lifetime. If we don’t watch out, this adage may soon become obsolete. We are fishing their waters to the limit.

Like the other vital resources, such as forests, Philippine fisheries are about to collapse – a victim of the almost unabated “plunder of the commons.” As defined, the commons encompasses unoccupied land and all waters which are considered God-given set of resources for the people to consume as much as needed.

But these resources appear to have been abused to the point of exhaustion. Despite the country’s vast marine resources – 220 million hectares of coastal and oceanic territorial water area – the Philippines is now experiencing a shortfall in fish supply.

Ask 63-year-old Ronnie Herrera and his son, Dondon, 18. Bago Aplaya, where they used to fish, was once the haven of fish in Davao City. But in one particular noon recently, the older Estrera already docked his banca (outrigger), but with no catch even as he started out dawn. “It’s not only now, several times, we went home without fish,” he complained.

His son was fortunate, having one ice box of fish catch. But he said the fish were getting smaller and fewer and they were forced to fish farther south into the waters of Sta. Cruz in Davao del Sur. “Fishers are already scarce in Bago Aplaya,” Dondon sighed.

Estimates show that if the present rapid population growth and declining trend in fish production continue, only 10 kilograms of fish will be available per Filipino per year by 2010, as opposed to 28.5 kilograms per year in 2003.

”Without any change in fish consumption and no active human population management program,” World Bank warned in a recent report, “domestic demand for fish will reach 3.2 billion kilograms by 2020, given the projected population growth rate of the country.”

Currently, the Philippines is home to almost 90 million people. “About 62 percent of the population lives in the coastal zone,” said the World Bank report, Philippine Environment Monitor.

It said that if increased demand is met solely by marine capture fisheries, such increased pressure on the fisheries sector could lead to an eventual collapse of fisheries and the fishing industry, which employs more than one million people (about five percent of the national labor force).

“All fisheries are showing decline in total catch and per unit effort (total number of fish caught per unit of time) despite increasing effort,” the World Bank report noted. “Fish are harvested at a level 30 to 50 percent higher than the natural production capacity.”

The Philippines is among the largest fish producers in the world, the World Bank report stated. The commercial, municipal, and aquaculture fisheries account for 36, 30, and 24 percent of the total fisheries yield, respectively. Its annual total fisheries yield is estimated to be worth around US$70 to UD$110 billion (equivalent to about 2-4 percent of the country’s gross domestic production over the years).

Even if the government can check the current population growth, there’s one problem that cannot be solved by the country alone: global warming.

“We still have enough fish now but with global warming we may have problems in the next five to ten years unless we do something about it,” warns Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, the executive director of the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development (PCAMRD).

This has been confirmed by a recent report released by the United Nations. “At least three quarters of the globe's key fishing grounds may become seriously impacted by changes in circulation as a result of the ocean's natural pumping systems fading and falling,” the UN report suggests.

Global warming refers to an increase in average global temperatures, as a result of too much greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This, in turn, results to climate change. Marine species are not spared from the threats caused by rising temperatures.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration physicist Josefino Comiso recently told Philippine media that rising temperatures could reach a point where “various living creatures” would start to die in large numbers. “Such temperatures would vary from species to species,” he said. “But the deaths of these creatures would gravely affect the food supply chain.”

Even without the threat of global warming, the fishery resources of the country are still beset with other problems. Fishery resources refers to inland (lakes, rivers, freshwater swamps, and fishponds), coastal and offshore waters.

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) has identified several factors in the fisheries decline. One of these is overexploitation. Oceans, after all, are global common property resources, open, with few limitations to all takers.

Although fish stocks are a renewable resource, many of them are strained to the limit. “Over the years, they have suffered from a widespread notion that the seas are inexhaustible and economic pressures that have encouraged over-exploitation,” deplored the line agency of the Department of Agriculture.

“Overfishing is the primary cause of dwindling fish population,” wrote Peter Weber, author of Net Loss: Fish, Jobs, and the Marine Environment published by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

The Manila-based Asian Development Bank says that most fishing vessels, which are often subsidized by governments, have twice the capacity needed to extract what the oceans can sustainably produce. The result, according to the bank, is “a vicious circle: as catches per vessel fall, profits plummet, and fishers overfish to maintain supplies, causing serious depletion of stocks and endangering long-term availability.”

The BFAR also attributes the decline in fish catch to the employment of destructive fishing methods like the use of cyanide and dynamite. The practice of cyanide fishing has been rampant among Filipino fishermen for more than 25 years already. On the other hand, about 70,000 fishers – that’s 12% of the total number of capture fishers in the country - are suspected to engage in blast fishing.

The destruction of the coastal ecosystem has also taken its toll on the country’s marine resources. Mangrove swamps, marshy area, and coral reefs make up the coastal ecosystem and most of them are in bad conditions.

In 1918, mangroves covered 450,000 hectares are opposed to 138,000 hectares today. “all over the country, whatever coastal province you visit, you see the same plight – desolate stretches of shoreline completely stripped of mangrove cover and now totally exposed to the pounding of the ocean’s waves,” commented one environmentalist.

Mangroves are important feeding sites for many commercially important fish species (mullet, tilapia, eel, and especially milkfish), shrimps, prawns, mollusks, crabs, and sea cucumbers. Fry that gather in mangrove areas are very important for aquaculture.

In the Philippines, an estimated 10-15 per cent of the total fisheries come from coral reefs. About 80-90 per cent of the income of small island communities come from fisheries. “Coral reef fish yields range from 20 to 25 metric tons per square kilometer per year for healthy reefs,” says Dr. Angel C. Alcala, former environment secretary.

But today, only4.3 percent (1,161 square kilometers) of its once-sprawling 27,000 square kilometers of coral reefs are in good condition. “Nowhere else in the world are coral reefs abused as much as the reefs in the Philippines,” says marine scientist Don McAllister. Apart from bleaching, the reefs face infestation by coral-eating crown of thorns starfish.

In inland waters, pollution has contributed to plunging fish harvest. “The increasing use of feed and chemicals in milkfish, tilapia, and shrimp culture is not only polluting inland waters, but also reduces fish catch and endangers public health,” said a fishery official.

The introduction of carnivorous species in inland water has also been blamed for the plummet of fish harvests in recent years. This has happened to Lake Lanao, where stocking of white goby and other predatory fishes has caused the decrease in fish stocks and extinction of some of its 18 endemic species.

“A fish crisis is in the making in this country,” warned Dr. Alcala. Before we know it, the crisis “could come anytime.”

Actually, the matter of diminishing fish catch is not unique to the Philippines. Newsweek, in a cover story years ago, declares: “The oceans are awash with too many fishing vessels, and the result is big trouble for fish – and the fishermen.”