‘THE poorest of the poor.” This is how the Filipino fisherfolk, the ones who catch the fish and other seafood to feed a population of 111 million people consuming an average per capita of 34 kilograms of fish and fishery products annually, could be described.
The total fisheries production volume in 2021 reached 4.25 million metric tons equivalent to P302.44 billion, according to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources’ data. Fishing and aquaculture contributed P248.47 billion or 12.70 percent to the national economy in the same year, ranking third to the total agricultural Gross Valued Added (GVA).
In the 2021 poverty statistics of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) released in 2023, the fisherfolk posted the highest incidence rate at 30.6 percent, which significantly increased by 4.4 percent compared to the year 2018.
So when the pandemic hit, the small-scale fisheries (SSF) sector—those who fish using traditional gear and small vessels and engines, owned by a family or locals who live near the coast for their livelihood—couldn’t keep up with the waves.
SSF in Danajon Bank
THE Danajon Bank is the largest double-barrier reef and one of only six in the world. It is located off northern Bohol Island in the Visayas with an overall area of 272 square kilometers and an aggregate coastline of 699 kilometers, including 40 islands.
Its jurisdiction covers four provinces: Cebu, Bohol, Southern Leyte and Leyte, encompassing 17 municipalities, with 10 of them falling under the domain of Bohol.
The SSF sector emerged as one of the most vulnerable sectors to the far-reaching impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the study of Dr. Jesrelljane Amper, dean of Bohol Island State University’s College of Fisheries and Marine Sciences, titled “Navigating the Storm: Understanding the Impact of Covid-19 on Small-Scale Fisherfolk in Danajon Bank and Building Resilience for a Sustainable Blue Economy.”
The study, which concluded in July and was presented at the recent National Science, Technology and Innovation Week 2023 held in Iloilo City, found that since most small-scale fisherfolk heavily rely on their daily catch sales, their vulnerability is rooted in economic factors.
This resource dependence is aggravated by limited financial reserves, lack of access to support systems and the information nature of their operations. The community’s proximity to the coast also exposes them to environmental threats.
“In the midst of the challenges faced by small-scale fisheries communities in the country, the small-scale fisherfolk in Danajon Bank stands out as a critical player in the fishing industry of Bohol,” said Dr. Amper in her presentation.
The 51 percent of the total value of fisheries production in Bohol is attributed to the substantial contribution of the small-scale fisherfolk in Danajon Bank, according to PSA data in 2019 as cited by Amper.
The primary livelihood focus for fisherfolk is capture fishing—harvesting fish directly from their natural habitat.
The primary livelihood for most males involves aquaculture, cultivating fish and other aquatic products. On the other hand, most females are engaged in gleaning—collecting edible marine invertebrates and seaweed during low tide, as well as participating in fish processing.
Challenges and coping strategies
VARIOUS impacts of Covid-19 on the SSF were found in the study, such as disruptions of supply chain and market access due to the “no sail policy” and limited or controlled mobility, greater decline in income for women, low fish prices, increased incidents of blast fishing to extract for fish, which leads to the destruction of marine biodiversity, and the additional burden for parents to take the role of teachers during the shift to online learning.
To cope with the challenges intensified by the pandemic, the fisherfolk shifted to post-harvest processing—specifically drying and salting of fish catch—to extend shelf life and for ease of marketing, engaged in backyard gardening and food vending as alternative livelihood sources.
The fisherfolk also substituted food and nutritional sources using seaweeds, since most of them do seaweed farming, to make puto, jams and biscuits.
“They could live with having no fish or meat because they can get the fish as an alternative to the meat. Pero pag walang rice, gutom daw. Kung anong meron sa kanila, ginagawa nilang alternative sa rice [But if there’s no rice, they get hungry. With what they have, they turn it to an alternative for rice],” Amper said, referring to the puto and biscuits.
THE fisheries sector is part of the concept called the “Blue Economy,” which seeks to promote economic growth, social inclusion, and the preservation or improvement of livelihoods while ensuring the environmental sustainability of the oceans and coastal areas.
To achieve a sustainable blue economy, it recommended having an Integrated Support Framework specifically tailored to the needs of SSF to ensure a “unified approach” to address the needs of the SSF sector, based on the results of the study.
Programs that focus on livelihood assets, such as subsidies and training for sustainable fishing practices, vocational training, infrastructure development for fish processing facilities, and market access and value chain integration, were also raised.
Since most small-scale fisherfolk are not members of PhilHealth, it suggested establishing a social insurance program for SSF communities to provide health coverage and financial support during emergencies, specifically a community-based health fund or insurance scheme.
Dr. Amper added that right now, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, local government units (LGUs), academe, and non-government organizations are forming the Danajon Council to address the common problems of those in the area, including the SSF sector.
Similar to the vast marine resources available in the waters, the problems faced by fisherfolk in the Danajon Bank are just among the many problems surrounding the fisheries sector and the so-called blue economy.
‘Aquaculture is the way forward’
THERE are three major sectors in the fisheries industry: commercial capture fisheries, municipal capture fisheries, and aquaculture, which contributed the largest, at 52.88 percent, to the total fisheries volume of production in 2021.
“I think the way forward now is in our aquaculture,” said Dr. Christopher Caipang from the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of the Philippines Visayas in an interview with the BusinessMirror.
He said the aquatic products that dominate our tables now come from aquaculture, which is now rapidly growing, whereas in the past, it used to be capture fisheries.
The five priority commodities in aquaculture are seaweeds, milkfish, tilapia, shrimps/prawns, shellfish, and other aquatic products.
Caipang shared that when he returned to the Philippines, he developed a project to ensure the sustainable production of shrimps through biofloc technology for shrimp nurseries, funded by the DOST-Philippine Center for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD).
The technology, he explained, is based on the manipulation of the microorganisms inside the nurseries. Once the microorganisms grow and clog together, they act as food for the small shrimps and regulate and improve the water quality as well.
Since the nurseries are of good quality, shrimps grow fast and can be harvested after a short time. Farmers can now improve their production of shrimp to four or five times a year, Caipang added.
Can S&T benefit the blue economy?
AS a maritime and archipelagic nation, the Philippines has a total territorial water area of 2.2 million square kilometers and a coastline stretching up to 266,000 square kilometers, including the contentious exclusive economic zone.
However, Caipang said, “The people who are dependent on these resources are the ones marginalized.”
He stressed the crucial role of technological support based on the needs of a particular sector, instead of imposing the developed technology or innovation on them: such imposition makes it doomed to fail.
“It should be a close coordination. The academe or the research institution should work hand-in-hand with the sector to know what they need,” he said. Adding that once the needs and gaps are identified, that’s when the government should provide infrastructure and funding support.
Dr. Juanito Batalon, Deputy Executive Director for Research and Development of DOST- PCAARRD, told the BusinessMirror that to address the interconnected problems in the blue economy, “planning and development through the fundamentals of science, technology and innovation (STI) is a vital output.”
Batalon emphasized that science and technology will lead in discovering new growth sources and are necessary to contribute to evidence-based policy making that will “greatly impact marine conservation and management.”
Innovations, meanwhile, will “help open doors to new development areas for an advancing economic development.”
ACADEMICIAN Dr. Rhodora Azanza is advocating “the use of STI not only for the preservation and sustainable utilization of the marine environment but all the natural endowments of the country.”
In the three-part series “The Way Forward” aired on CNN Philippines, Azanza highlighted the “Pagtanaw 2050,” a blueprint on STI developed by the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and funded by the DOST, in which she was the project leader.
She said that while most of the government strategies are short-term or mid-term, the Pagtanaw 2050 is an outlook for the next 30 years, embodying the overarching concept of the blue economy as part of its 12 key operational areas.
The document suggests the preparation and implementation of a comprehensive action plan for a National Coast and Ocean Strategy using the framework for an STI-based development of the country’s blue economy as a starting or shifting point.
It said this will allow the Philippines to anticipate and make important changes to its national political, economic and social spheres, as well as to its stance vis-à-vis Asian neighbors and the rest of the world.
The current blue industries in the Philippines include tourism, fisheries, coastal manufacturing, marine transportation, ocean energy, seabed mining, marine biotechnology and medicine, and marine technology and environmental services.
All these industries rely on the oceans and their resources, but it cannot be denied that certain constraints such as the lack of scientific knowledge and capability impede their development.
To achieve an inclusive and sustainable “Prosperous, Archipelagic and Maritime Nation,” as NAST would refer to the country, it suggested the development and implementation of a Philippine Coasts and Ocean Strategy to be a top Philippine government priority.