Food security is important to any nation. As an archipelago, the Philippines is endowed with abundant marine resources with two thirds of its territory composed of bodies of water. Its 36,289 kilometers coastline is host to 68 percent of its 110 million population. Unfortunately and ironically, they also comprise ¾ of the poorest and most marginalized sectors of Philippine society.
As a developing nation, the Philippines should be able to harness its marine resources in order to feed its people while creating employment opportunities. It can easily increase the average Filipino food intake, which is short of 300 calories daily, while lactating mothers will be able to avail themselves of the necessary docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) requirement from fish needed for the neurological development of their babies (Ravenholt, 1982). This can be done responsibly without destroying the marine ecosystem (Quinn, Kuzawa 2012).
But like many other economic issues, there are political underpinnings to this. The fishery industry is elite-controlled. Fishing magnates control deep-sea fishing while they also dominate the medium scale fishery industry. What is left to the poor fisherfolk are the municipal waters and littoral areas, which are laden with restrictions. As a result of this, majority of the illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing violations are committed by this sector. (I-FIT Assessment Report, 2022).
The agency in charge of the protection and management of the maritime domain, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), is a small bureau among nine other bureaus under the Department of Agriculture (DA). It has 3.8 percent percent of the Department’s budget, which also runs eight attached agencies, eight attached corporations, and 16 regional field offices. As such, it is unable to provide the appropriate policy and support mechanisms to its constituents, much less prevent the occurrence of IUU fishing all over the country.
In 2014, the problem became apparent for the politicians, the media, and the citizens, when the Chinese started reclaiming four artificial islands from half-submerged features within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone. By 2016, Chinese military bases were completed, which restricted the movement of Philippine Navy, Coast Guard, and the Filipino fishermen in the area. This brought more misery to Filipino fisherfolk, whose only means of livelihood is fishing.
The continuous aggressive posturing of the Chinese today presents an opportunity to push this agenda with the attention it is causing in the national psyche. The convergence of problem, politics, and solution streams begs for a multiple streams approach. The situation is ripe for the nation to unite on several agendas: the promotion of responsible fishing in the WPS, strengthening Philippine resolve to protect what is ours, sustaining peace and stability using non-military approaches, and enhancing the capacity of fishermen to harness marine resources in order to spur the local economy.
This agenda requires a punctuated approach to the challenges posed by foreign actors by capacitating BFAR into a full-grown Department, separate from the DA. It can absorb many of the other bureaus and agencies under DA, in order to push for a more robust maritime economic policy and programs to address a brewing crisis in the WPS region through non-military and non-aggressive ways.
Pushing this agenda to the public consciousness through an outside initiative model is possible with the intervention of respectable lobby groups or NGOs that advocate environmental protection, alongside other groups, which shall advocate for poverty reduction and social justice among fisherfolks.
The USAID Fish Right Program has been a reliable partner for this initiative. It can advance consciousness on marine life preservation by expanding its mandate. This will put pressure on policy makers to take action on the plight of poor fisherfolks, while addressing security concerns in the WPS.
In order to prevent failures in implementation, incremental changes may be necessary so as not to disrupt local governance, particularly as the mandate shifts from the DA to the new Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. This incremental approach is also important in order not to attract undue attention from outside forces that are also claimant states.
The government can draw lessons from and even copy Vietnam Strategy 2020. The Vietnam model embarked on “sustainable and effective exploitation of sources of seafood in association with national defense, security, and protection of sea environment.” (Vietnam Socio-economic Development Strategy 2011-2020). The program surpassed its target to harness 50 percent of their GDP from their marine economy in less than five years. It ranked 7th in the world in terms of fish production with a total of 8.2 billion metric tons a year, as against the Philippines’ 5 billion metric tons, which kept it in 10th place in 2019 (FAO Fishery and Aquaculture Information and Statistics Service, 2011).
To ensure an effective policy, a third party may be tapped to conduct process evaluation, cost-benefit evaluation, and eventually an impact evaluation.