Fish Depletion, Marine Habitats Destruction in the Philippines

Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

Davao City, 19 October 2011. Give man a fish, so goes a popular Chinese saying, and he will eat fish for a day.  Teach him how to fish, and he will eat fish for his lifetime.

“If we don’t watch out, this adage may soon become obsolete,” says Roy C. Alimoane, the director of the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) Foundation, Inc. based in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur.  “We are fishing our waters to the limit.”

 Fish needed for nutrition

Fish needed for nutrition

“Like the other vital resources such as forests, Philippine fisheries are about to collapse – a victim of the almost unabated plunder of the commons,” Alimoane bemoaned.

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 – 200 million hectares of coastal and oceanic territorial water area – the Philippines is now experiencing a shortfall in fish supply.

Ask 52-year-old Ronnie Estrera and his son Dondon, 17.  Bago Aplaya, where they used to fish, was once a haven of marine resources in Davao City.  But in one particularly noon recently, the elder Estrera already docked his banca with no catch even though he started out fishing since dawn.  “It’s not only now, several times, we went home without fish,” he lamented.

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.

With more than 7,000 islands, life in the Philippines is never far from the sea.  Every square kilometer of the Philippine coast is home to an average of 286 people.  That’s one of the highest population density rates in coastal Asia, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Fishery decline is due to overfishing and destruction of marine habitats

It’s not mind-boggling at all. The Philippines has one of the highest population growth rates in the world, with an average annual rate of increase of 2.75 percent during the last century.  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.

“Every Filipino lives within 45 miles of the coast, and every day, more than 4,500 new residents are born,” wrote Joan Castro and Leona D’Agnes in a report circulated by the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  “The rapidly rising population has overwhelmed the fisheries that have traditionally supported the country, bringing grinding poverty and malnutrition to many coastal communities.”

The observation is very alarming.   In fact, a report from the World Bank predicts that “without any change in fish consumption and no active human population management program, domestic demand for fish will reach 3.2 billion kilograms by 2020, given the projected population growth rate of the country.”

Fish provides more than half of the protein requirement of most Filipinos.  “Unless we look for other sources of protein, the food intake of Filipinos will be greatly affected,” says an official of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, a line agency of the Department of Agriculture.

Burgeoning population is not the only culprit to the dwindling fish supply.  “Open access to fisheries and rampant destruction of fish habitats such as mangrove stands, coral reefs, and sea grass beds have further exacerbated the fisheries’ decline,” Castro and D’Agnes noted in their collaborative report.

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 comes 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.

Despite the alarm sounded in the late 1970s by the East West Center in Hawaii, coral reef destruction continues unabated. Coral reefs in the Philippines have been slowly dying over the past 30 years, reported the Southeast Asian Centre of Excellence during the 11th International Coral Reef Symposium held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 2008.                                                                                                                                                                         

Studies have shown that rapid population growth and increasing human pressure on coastal resources have resulted in the massive degradation of coral reefs. Robert Ginsburg, a specialist on coral reefs workign with the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, said human beings have a lot to do with the rapid destruction of reefs.

“In areas where people are using the reefs or where there is a large population, there are significant declines in coral reefs,” he pointed out.

Dr. Edgardo D. Gomez, director of the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines at Diliman, agrees.  “If asked what the major problem of coral reefs is, my reply would be ‘The pressure of human populations’,” he asserted.

A visit to any fishing village near a reef will quickly confirm this, he pointed out.  “There are just too many fishermen.  They overfish the reefs, and even if the use non-destructive fishing gear, they still stress the coral reef ecosystem,” Dr. Gomez deplored.

Mangrove roots are 'delivery rooms' of new marine offsprings

Mangroves are very important to marine life, contends Dr. Laura David, a marine scientist.  They serve as sanctuaries and feeding grounds for fish that nibble on detritus (fallen and decaying leaves) trapped in the vegetation, and on the bark and leaves of living trees.

Mangroves are home to 68 species of fish (including bangus, kitan, tilapia, eel, and mullet, to name a few), 54 species of crustaceans (shrimps, prawns, and crabs), and 56 species of gastropods.

“Fish use the spaces under the mass of prop roots of mangrove trees as ‘delivery rooms,’ and the offspring of many marine species spend their growing period in the mangrove swamps before moving on to the open said,” explains Dr. Rafael Guerrero III, former executive director of the Laguna - based Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development.

Mangroves are not spared from denudation. In 1981, there were an estimated 450,000 hectares of mangrove areas in the country. Since then, there has been a decreasing trend. The current rate of mangrove deforestation ranges from 2,000 to 3,000 hectares per year.  

The destruction of mangroves is detrimental to those living near the coastal areas.  “Research in some areas of the world, as well as in this country, show that where mangroves have been protected, yields of fish have been high; where they have been destroyed, yields have been low,” reminds Dr. Alcala.

“Some mangroves bring in more income to communities when kept intact than when converted to bangus fishponds, giving evidence that adherence to sound ecology makes for good economics,” adds the former recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service.

The Philippines has 18 species along its coasts, making the country with the second highest (after Western Australia's more than 30 species) in terms of the number of seagrasses in the world.  The area covered by seagrasses in the country is 27,282 square kilometers.

Among the diversified species found in the seagrass beds are fishes, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, crabs, scallops, mussels and snails. Shrimps spend the early stages of their lives in seagrass areas.  Large animals like sea cow (dugong) and green sea turtles graze extensively in seagrass beds.  A total of 1,384 individuals and 55 species from 25 fish families have been identified from five seagrass sites in the country alone.

 Dr Miguel Fortes: Seagrass still yet to be understood

Dr Miguel Fortes: Seagrass still yet to be understood

“All have economic value mostly as food and aquarium specimens,” reports Dr. Miguel D. Fortes, the country’s foremost expert on seagrasses. “Five times as many fish live in seagrass beds as above sea floors of mud, shells, and sand.”

“Despite their high biodiversity and abundance, seagrass habitats are still poorly understood in our country,” says Dr. Fortes.  “Hence, it appears only marginally useful when, in fact, the ecosystem plays significant economic and ecological roles.”

Meanwhile, the growing of population in the Philippines persists – as reproductive health bill is still under scrutiny by lawmakers and Catholic Church officials.  “If current trends in population growth and coastal resource exploitation continue, the availability and affordability of fish to provide crucial protein source will be lost,” the Department of Environment and Natural Resources points out.

“The last wild meal in the human diet” is how fish are considered.  In the Philippines, the other sources of meat protein are pork, chicken, and beef.  “But those are very expensive,” 33-year-old Jean Arriaga, a mother of two children, complains.   “Before, we managed to buy one kilogram of fish every other day.  Today, we have managed to at least fish twice a week.”

She’s not alone.  Most Filipinos are doing that already.