Conservation advocates and fisherfolk groups are calling for transparency amid reported efforts by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to introduce amendments to the Philippine Fisheries Code.
In a position paper sent by fisherfolk leaders from different parts of the country and Oceana to Department of Agriculture (DA) Senior Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban, Undersecretary for Fisheries Drusila Bayate, and BFAR Director Atty. Demosthenes Escoto, the groups opposed what they described as unwarranted haste and underhanded process of presenting the proposed amendments to the Amended Fisheries Code or Republic Act 10654.
The signatories of the statement expressed their vehement objection concerning “consultations” conducted at the Swiss Belhotel Blulane in Manila from May 15 to 17, 2023.
“We believe that there is no urgent need for drastic amendments; rather, it is more essential to implement the law. We must also evaluate the implementation status of the existing law at the very least. Without this evaluation, it becomes challenging to make an informed decision on whether legislative solutions are indeed necessary, or if legislation is the appropriate solution to address the existing problems in our fisheries,” the position paper stated.
According to Oceana’s Acting Vice President and Legal and Policy Director Atty. Rose Liza Eisma Osorio, BFAR did not even undertake any review to assess the effectiveness, relevance, and impact of existing provisions of the Amended Fisheries Code to justify the proposed amendments.
“It is more disconcerting to know that the direction of the changes that BFAR and the commercial fishing sector are pushing is to allow the unrestricted access of the commercial fishing sector to catch fish within municipal waters, through an amendment to Section 18. Such a proposition blatantly contradicts the 1987 Constitution, which mandates the protection of the rights of subsistence fishermen to the preferential right to the use of local marine and fishing resources,” said Osorio.
The statement of the group also stressed that full implementation of the existing Fisheries Code is needed, not an amendment.
Mechanisms such as the Fisheries Management Area system are already in place under the existing RA 10654 to implement science-based policies to sustainably manage the country’s fisheries in a decentralized and transparent governance that needs to be fully implemented. The groups said the proposed changes contradict these overarching goals of the law.
Fisheries Administrative Order No. 266 was issued under the leadership of Agriculture Secretary William Dar on October 12, 2020 that laid down the rules and guidelines in the implementation of Vessel Monitoring Measure (VMM), in accordance with Section 14 of the Fisheries Code, as amended. The VMM provides effective monitoring, control, and surveillance mechanisms to enhance the tracking of fishing vessels and deter illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.
Osorio said BFAR has not fully implemented these mechanisms that are still responsive to changing circumstances, and yet, they are already pushing for an amendment of the law.
Martha Cardano, a fisherfolk from Northern Samar who attended the consultation meeting recounted that she was not allowed to say her piece. She was particularly alarmed because the participants of the consultation meeting that includes commercial fishers repeatedly argue that small fisherfolk have no capacity to fish sufficiently to increase the country’s capture fisheries production.
Ruperto Aleroza, National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) Vice Chairman for the Basic Sector also expressed concern because fisherfolk representatives were not invited to the consultation meeting.
Even the NAPC, he said, was not invited by BFAR.
The groups also provided Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Atty. Benjamin “Benhur” Abalos Jr. with their position paper, and asserted that science and technical experts must be invited; technical maps must be presented; and proper agencies, including the DILG must be invited to the consultations.
According to Oceana and the fisherfolk representatives who attended the consultations, the discussions are leaning to redefine the boundaries of municipal waters, a matter that carries substantial implications on the delineation and jurisdiction of local government units, and yet the offices and agencies directly involved in matter are not adequately represented and some are not represented at all.
The groups said that BFAR has not furnished them with complete records, minutes of the meeting, and documents containing the full copy of the proposed amendments, yet they were asked to submit their position paper within a limited time (24 hours).
This, they said, is the reason they issued the statement to demand full disclosure of the records and allow all relevant stakeholders to peruse these records in order to come up with an informed position. They also learned that the BFAR and the commercial fishing industry plan to submit the amendments before the end of the 1st regular session of the 19th Congress on June 2, 2023.
Oceana is an international advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans. Since 2014, Oceana has been working closely with national and local government agencies, civil society, fisherfolk, and other stakeholders to restore the abundance of Philippine fisheries and marine resources.