A very sad fish story

The World Wildlife Fund and the United Nations agree that 70 percent of the world’s oceans have been fished to the limit. The World Fish Center concurs fish have been hunted 30 percent above its ability to replenish.

Fishing is done with wanton abandon everywhere—with little protection to the habitat and very few no-fishing zones. There is so much demand for fish that countries have subsidized their fishing fleet. There are just too many boats chasing after too few fish. Do we already have a dwindling supply of fish in the world?

In the Philippines  the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) confirms that 10 of the 13 so-called fishing grounds in the Philippines are overfished.

Less discussed is the competition for the same fish posed by whales, dolphins and porpoises. And, lest we forget, there is China, which have more than a billion mouths to feed.

You see, the tension at the West Philippine Sea is not just about oil underneath the seabed, although there potentially are billions of barrels of the resources there, but, more important, the fish. In that area alone, China has 3.7 million workers in the fishing industry that forces many other nations scampering for safety in mortal fear of China.

The worst thing about it, according to a study conducted by the University of Miami, is that the man-made islands in the West Philippine Sea has caused the destruction of 16,200 hectares of coral reefs that act as sanctuary for fish and other marine life.

But China’s humongous demand for fish is best illustrated by the size of its overseas fishing fleet numbering 2,600 ships employing some 14 million workers and whose reach extend as far as the seawaters of Africa.

This is not surprising, as China is said bruited to consume 34 percent of the world’s fish supply.

The growing scarcity, and thus the rising price of fish, is true in many Asian nations where having fish on the table is a luxury for many of their poor. In certain places, meat has become less expensive than fish.

So severe is the lack of fresh fish that, in highly populated countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, canned sardines or tuna are a daily fare on many dining tables.

According to the BFAR, there already were close to 69,000 fishing boats here, mostly small, weighing 3 gross tons or less. The popular catch are the tulingan, dilis, galunggong, tamban and tambakon.

The dwindling fish supply punishes the poor fisherfolk the most. The 15-kilometer permissible fishing grounds is often dominated by big-time trawl fishers who bribe local officials to grant them permits to fish with abandon even in restricted areas.

Thus, half the fish supply is dominated by the 1  percent owned by big-time fish operators. In the 1970s the fisherfolk could easily catch 20 kilos of fish per day but reduced today to a mere 4.76 kilos a day.

Ten years back, a father-and-son team could earn P1,000 a day and still have some fish left to bring home. Today, he does not only borrow for his working capital but takes longer and bring in fewer fish compared to a decade ago.

There is plenty to blame for this tragedy, such as illegal methods like dynamite fishing, payao (which uses light to attract fish), trawlers and fishnets with holes less than 2 centimeters that catch even immature fish, while locals and even tourists who throw away their garbage everywhere contribute to the waste absorbed by the sea that makes it more acidic.

A 1998 study proved that only 5 percent of our corals are totally free from bottles, plastics  and other wrappers. This is a tragedy. Man is his own worst enemy in this regard.

Imagine that while the Philippines has 10 million hectares of land suitable for agriculture, we have 220 million hectares of territorial waters and 17,000 kilometers of coastline. That should have made the Philippines a fish country with a developed aquaculture.

Statistics disprove this. Consider that as of 2015, the Philippines exported only $473 million worth of fish compared to Vietnam’s $4.3 billion, Indonesia’s $2.7 billion and Thailand’s $1.7 billion. Why?

And even with these export numbers, why are our fisherfolk one of the poorest of the poor in the country earning only P178 a day? And there are 1.7 million of them, laments Sen. and gentleman farmer Francis Pangilinan. He says we have the capability to become a “superpower” in the fishing and marine life industry. He does not understand the Philippines’s widespread poverty when France has developed its mollusk industry into a P32-billion enterprise, US lobster into a P42-billion industry and even Bangladeshi shrimp is worth $476 million in the market.

How come that once again we are laggards in a country so rich in marine resources? The lack of financing, storage, manufacturing capabilities, packing prowess, environmental abuse, illegal fishing and lack of direction from the government have been cited as sources of the many problems we face.

Until we get our act together and the government teams up with the private sector, we will always tell the same sad fish story. Foreign visitors often note our unexplained poverty and raise their eyebrows when they see how we are surrounded by many natural resources.


(Bingo Dejaresco, a former banker, is a financial consultant media practitioner and book author. A life member of Finex, he is also the chairman of both the Professional Development and Broadcast Media committees, His views here, however, are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Finex.



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