Citing a recent study, experts said sardines are getting smaller and smaller, and they spawn earlier to adapt to heavy fishing pressure and changes in the environment.
Unless the government acts with dispatch, experts fear that the sardine species may eventually become extinct. The government, they said, must craft a national management framework to address the overfishing of sardines, or face the consequences of declining fish stocks.
In a statement, Jimely Flores, a senior marine scientist of Oceana Philippines, said an effective management framework for sardines is “a necessary guide in the implementation of policies that are based on science and research.”
The management framework, she added, should include data from the National Stock Assessment Program (NSAP) of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).
“We have called on the BFAR to reconvene the technical working group, and together with our scientists, craft the much-needed management framework for sardines,” Flores said.
According to Flores, the management framework should include “timely and transparent” scientific data for policy support, and a review process for implementation.
“We need to work together in sustainably managing our sardines through science-based policies. This way, we can ensure that there will be sardines, a small but important fish, forever,” she said.
Dr. Wilfredo Campos, a scientist from the University of the Philippines in the Visayas, said: “Sardines are being overfished and existing policy measures are not enough to protect them, especially spawning fish.”
Their studies show that sardines are getting smaller, and spawn and mature early.
Catching sardines would be more sustainable if they are allowed to mature for at least two years, so they can reproduce more, he said.
He said instinctively, sardines are adapting to overfishing—somehow, maturing earlier than they used to and be able to reproduce.
“To keep up with being caught too quickly, they biologically adapt by maturing early to compensate for their population loss. They remain small, and spawn less compared to ideal, mature sardines,” Campos said.
Experts noted that fishermen caught 344,730,201 kilograms of sardines worth P7.43 billion in 2015.
Sardines are also crucial in the food chain, eaten by high-value fish, such as tuna, mackerel and scad, plus larger predators like sharks and dolphins.
A recent study made by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) also showed that 71 percent of typical Filipino families eat seafood, especially sardines, at least five times per month, proving that seafood is a significant source of animal protein diet. However, they also noted that the fish they eat are getting smaller and more expensive.
In 2012 the BFAR ordered a closed season for sardines in major fishing grounds, including the Visayan Sea and the Zamboanga Peninsula, to ensure that they will be protected during the spawning months.
However, experts said it is also important to protect sardines after the spawning season.
Dr. Jose Ingles, an advisor to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in the Philippines, said that after the closed season, there’s often a “race to fish” for sardines, where commercial fishers may end up catching the juveniles which are expected to spawn next season.
“There should be other additional measures to protect the little fish that were produced during the spawning season. These include setting catch limits and reducing fishing efforts which will help protect the juvenile sardines, especially during the race to fish season,” Ingles said.
He also emphasized that these measures must be urgently implemented in fishing grounds that are already overfished. Additional measures, such as setting catch limits and reducing fishing effort, can protect juvenile sardines, especially during the race-to-fish season. Ingles said these measures must be urgently implemented in fishing grounds that are already overfished.