A second look at ‘closed fishing season’

In Photo: Sardines at a fish landing (fish port) in Estancia, Iloilo

Various stakeholders in the Visayas closed ranks on November 15 to enforce the “closed fishing season” for herring, mackerel and sardines in the Visayan Sea by virtue of Fisheries Administrative Order (FAO) 167-3.

The three-month closed fishing season every year—from November 15 to February 15—prohibits commercial fishing of the three important fish species in the Visayan Sea.

During the closed fishing, the fishes are allowed to spawn.

A fish porter shows a flying fish at the General Santos City Fish Port.

FAO 167-3, or the Establishing a Closed Season for the Conservation of Sardines, Herrings and Mackerels in the Visayan Sea, specifically prohibits the catching, killing, selling or possessing the sexually mature, young, fry or larvae of the three species, which are the most common and abundant group of fish caught in the territory.

FAO 167-3 aims to protect and conserve herrings, mackerels and sardines during the period to allow the fish stock to recover from overfishing.

Similar closed fishing seasons are being implemented in other areas.

Major fishing ground

The Visayan Sea is a major fishing ground and is known to provide abundant fish during the fishing season.

In a 2004 report, titled “The Fisheries of Central Visayas, Philippines: Status and Trends,” expert Corazon M. Corrales, the then-regional director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR)-Central Visayas, said: “[The region] is strongly dependent on its marine capture fisheries to supply the main source of animal protein in the region, as well as to provide livelihood to over 150,000 fishers in commercial and municipal fishing sectors.”

Central Visayas has a number of fishing grounds, foremost of which is the Visayan Sea, where mackerel, herring and sardines thrive.

Its ecosystem has a total of 242.1 kilometers (km) coastline. The provinces of Cebu, Negros Occidental, Iloilo, Masbate and a portion of Leyte share the ecosystem of the Visayan Sea.

The fisheries resources of the Visayan Sea are mostly pelagic, which feed on sea floors, such as Indian mackerels and sardines.

In 1995 it was the top 3 contributor to fish and other marine fisheries products in the country, with landings of approximately 208,883 tons, making up 12.4 percent of total fisheries landings.

It is the country’s top producer in the commercial fishing sector and ranked third in the municipal fisheries sector.

Lately, however, like other fishing grounds troubled by environmental degradation, excessive commercial fishing and destructive fishing, the fish catch continues to decline, in both the commercial and municipal fishing sectors.

Temporary solution

While the closed fishing season appears to succeed in its objective of repopulating fishing grounds, questions have been raised over its wisdom because of lack of comprehensive study on its environmental, social and economic impacts.

At best, declaring closed fishing season is a temporary solution that will, in the long run, fail to ensure sustainable capture fisheries, experts say.

While certain areas are declared “off limits,” commercial fishing in other areas continues.

Since herring, mackerel and sardines, like other fish species, are highly mobile and migrate to other areas in search of rich feeding grounds, they eventually end up being caught elsewhere where commercial fishing is allowed.

Although not the intended target of the ban as closed fishing season expressly prohibits large-scale commercial fishing in a particular area during a certain period, artisanal or small-scale fisheries often suffer as a consequence of closed fishing seasons.

Artisanal fishing, or subsistence fishing, involves various small-scale, low-technology, low-capital fishing practices undertaken by fishing households.

Unintended target

The Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya (Pamalakaya), an umbrella organization of fishers, strongly opposed the declaration of closed fishing season.

“In reality, closed fishing seasons always target not only the commercial fishers but also the small-scale fishers. Fish caught in the seas are exploited and depleted because of irreverent entry of large-scale fishing vessels weighing 3 gross tons and above into the 15-km municipal fishing waters intended for municipal fishermen,” said Fernando Hicap, national coordinator of Pamalakaya.

According to Hicap, months of preserving fish species, through the declaration of a closed fishing season, is futile because local government units allow commercial fishing back to business right after the lifting of the periodic fish ban.

“It is like we breed fish so that commercial fishers have a bounty catch to indulge after. Declaring parts of the communal waters as closed season [to fishing] will do nothing to preserve a sea’s dwindling fish catch. Rather, it is detrimental to small fishers who will be deprived of the right to livelihood,” Hicap lamented.

Pamalakaya said the existing fishing law, the Fisheries Code of 1998, institutionalizes commercial incursion into the municipal waters despite its amendments, which are supposed to deter destructive commercial fishing.

“Large-scale commercial fishing fleets must be strictly prevented from conducting fishing expeditions within the municipal fishing zone to save marine resources from further exploitation and degradation,” Hicap said.

Fisheries management framework

Oceana Philippines Vice President Gloria Estenzo Ramos, admitted at a news conference in Dumaguete City during the announcement of the closed fishing season in the Visayan Sea on November 15, that the measure is just one of many interventions needed to ensure sustainable capture fisheries. Oceana Philippines has joined other stakeholders in reaffirming its commitment to protect the Tañon Strait Protected Seascape (TSPS).

The TSPS, the country’s largest marine protected area, is “off limits” to commercial fishing but is often raided by erring commercial fishers to catch fish.

Oceana Philippines is among the stakeholders pushing to declare the Visayan Sea a Fisheries Management Area, to draw a comprehensive management plan that will protect and conserve Central Visayas’s important fishing ground from abuse.

“There’s really a need to come up with a management plan for our fishing grounds because closed fishing season alone is not enough. We need other measures to enforce after the closed fishing season to prevent the race to fish that leads to overfishing,” she said.

Science takes a back seat

Jimely Flores, a marine biologist at Oceana Philippines, said fisheries management is the least of priority in the Philippines despite being an archipelagic country and one of the top 20 seafood producers in the world.

In a telephone interview on November 20, Flores said the poorest of the poor belonged to the fisheries sector because its management is using the least science.

A review conducted by experts from the University of Visayas, she said, revealed that closed fishing season in the Visayan Sea has no significant impact.

Flores said Philippine-style closed fishing season is not addressing the problem of overfishing, citing “realities” that consider the biogeographic characteristics of sardines, general fisheries assessment and the socioeconomic lens.

Law of supply and demand

“After the closed fishing season there are lots of fish to catch. However, this only benefits commercial fishing,” explained partly in Filipino, adding that big fishers resort to canning because of oversupply of fish.

She said as the law of supply and demand dictates, the oversupply of fish brings down the price in the local market, which is “bad news” for artisanal or municipal fishers.

She cited that the closed fishing season in the Sulu Sea has caused economic disruption, adversely affecting the livelihood of fishers and producers of tuyo (dried fish) and tinapa (smoked fish).

“There should be a comprehensive framework on how to manage sardines. Closed fishing season alone is not effective. What we need are measures that will address overfishing after the closed fishing season,” she said.

Naturally productive

She added that fish like sardines are biologically productive—they grow fast, mature early, small in size and known to be serial spawner.

“However, that high productivity is naturally controlled by their vulnerability to changes in environmental conditions and the abundance of their natural predators,” she said.

“In the presence of anthropogenic factors, such as too many and very efficient fishing, increasing ocean temperatures, ocean acidification and marine pollution, that vulnerability is further magnified,” she added.

According to Flores, while the closed fishing season is indeed one of the recipes from age-old fisheries management regulatory tools, it only becomes effective when implemented honestly and guided by correct science.

Flores said that in the Philippines, the efficiency of such control or regulation in capture fisheries is compromised.

“On a broad scale, during a closed fishing regime, landings are expected to decrease in the first few years due to the decrease in fishing effort. Of course, because some months are closed to fishing. And ideally, landings increase after maybe two years due to the abundance of fish in the waters, as a good result of the closed fishing.”

Race to fish

However, she said the experience in sardines in the Philippines is showing the opposite trend because immediately after the months of closed fishing, a race to fish occurs. This, she said, in essence, effectively removes a lot of fish out of the water.

“The closed fishing months give a chance for the fish to spawn and grow, only to be caught afterward. The race to fish is true for all the months after the closed fishing,” she said. As a result, she added, very few fish remain to spawn on the next closed fishing season.

Flores said the only way closed fishing would become effective is by putting a limit on fishing on the months it is allowed.

In effect, she said closed fishing is not solving overfishing, particularly in sardines.

“Worst, it is acting as a shroud of mist masking the continued overfishing. It is a sham!” she said.

Flores added that the only way to ensure sustainable fisheries is to stop overfishing and enact genuine solutions that will regulate the commercial fishing industry.

Image Credits: Oceana Philippines, Jonathan L. Mayuga