Fish: Going, Going, Gone?

In a country where marine biodiversity is rich, there is an evident decline in fishes being catched


The declining fish volume over the year is getting to be alarming; and fishermen, totaling to around 1.7 million, try to fish in other fishing grounds despite the risk that they’re sailing in unfamiliar areas

Text and Photos By Henrylito D. Tacio

It’s noon time and 63-year-old fisherman Ronnie Estrera already docked his banca. He had no catch even though he started out dawn going to Bago Aplaya, which used to be haven of fish in Davao City. “It’s not only now. For several times, I went home without fish,” he deplored.

His son, 19-year-old Dondon, was fortunate – he was able to bring one ice box of fish catch. But he said the fish were getting smaller and fewer. He had to fish farther south into the waters of Sta. Cruz in Davao del Sur. “Fishers are already scarce in Bago Aplaya,” he sighed.

A fisherman looking for catch

It’s not only happening in Bago Aplaya but in almost all fishing grounds in the country. “We are running out of fish and running out of time. For a country known for its marine biodiversity, there are very few fish left to catch,” deplored Vince Cinches, oceans and political campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

Roy C. Alimoane, the director of Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC), a non-government organization based in Davao del Sur, agreed. “Like the other vital resources such as forests, Philippine fisheries are about to collapse,” he pointed out.

Mangroves are important to marine life

This is bad news, indeed. Fish, after all, provides more than half of the protein requirement of almost all Filipinos. But in recent years, the average annual consumption has declined from 37 kilos to just 30 kilos. “Unless we look for other sources of protein, the food intake of Filipinos will be greatly affected,” Alimoane said.

Majority of fishing grounds in the Philippines are overfished. In fact, 10 out of 13 of these are under intense fishing pressure. Davao Gulf, the 10th major fishing ground in the country, is a critical resource supporting the economies of six coastal cities and 24 coastal municipalities in Davao region.

Since 2000, the volume and quality of the fish in the Davao Gulf have been found to be in constant decline, according to a study conducted by Kuala Lumpur-based World Fish Center.

Except for maya-maya, the harvest numbers for other nine species have been falling. At the current rate of decline, the caraballas, bilong-bilong, molmol, and danggit may all disappear completely from Davao Gulf within a decade, the study said. The matambaka, tamban, and moro-moro are more resilient, but even they may disappear within a generation, it added.

Fishes provide more than half of the population’s protein requirement

The declining fish stocks over the years, however, have significantly affected the standard of living of most fishermen, whose number totaled 1.7 million. Those who try to fish in other fishing grounds are bound to incur most costs. Not only that, they even court for troubles as they sail far to those unfamiliar areas.

There are also those who risk their lives from sea bandits. “These groups would force the fishers to give them their fish catch,” Buenafe Olarte, national fisherfolk director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), told Philippine Panorama. “Sometimes, they just threaten to kill, but others would not hesitate to kill our fishermen in exchange for food or banca.”

Aquaculture contributes the bighest in total fisheries output

But the big problem is still overfishing. Newsweek, in a cover story years ago, pointed this out: “The oceans are awash with too many fishing vessels, and the result is big trouble for fish and the fishermen.”

Although fish stocks are a renewable resource, many of them are strained to the limit, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), a line agency of the Department of Agriculture, claims. “Over the years, they have suffered from a widespread notion that the seas are inexhaustible and economic pressures that have encourage over-exploitation,” it points out.

Cinches reports that commercial fishing vessels continue to encroach and raid the 15-kilometer municipal waters that are exclusively reserved for artisanal fishermen. “For a day of commercial fishing operation inside the municipal waters, artisanal fisherfolk are deprived of two-month fish catch,” he writes.

This made one Filipino fishery expert to say these words: “The Philippines, which in the 1980s ranked among the top 15 fishing countries in the world, has resorted to importation to fill an ever-increasing fish supply gap, because much of the country’s potential fish catch is being openly stolen from Filipinos by foreign fishing boats.”

There are several other reasons, too. “Our fishery resources are beset with problems,” it says. Fishery resources refers to inland (lakes, rivers, freshwater swamps, and fishponds), coastal and offshore waters.

Fishery experts claim that fishing activities depend on a fragile resource base which, if mismanaged and overexploited, can easily collapse.

“We cannot deny the fact that fish catch is declining because of overfishing and illegal fishing activities. Chemical runoff from farm has affected the bodies of water as well,” Olarte said.

The national office of BFAR attributes the decline of fish catch in the country to destruction of the coastal zones, which encompasses approximately 17,000 kilometers of coastline. It includes mangrove forests, tidal flats, estuaries, island ecosystems, sea grasses, coral reefs and beaches.

Mangroves are very important to marine life, says Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, former head of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development. They serve as sanctuaries and feeding grounds for fish that nibble on detritus (fallen and decaying leaves) trapped in the vegetation, and on the bark and leaves of living trees.

“(Mangroves) are important feeding sites for many commercially important fish species (mullet, tilapia, eel, and especially milkfish), shrimps, prawns, mollusks, crabs, and sea cucumbers,” a World Bank report on environment adds. “Fry that gather in mangrove areas are very important for aquaculture.”

From its original area of approximately 450,000 hectares in 1918, the mangrove areas went down to 140,000 hectares in 1991. It decreased further in 1994 to 120,000 hectares. Dr. Angel C. Alcala, the environment secretary during the administration of Fidel V. Ramos, claimed that where mangroves are cut, fishery production declines. Fishermen in Bulacan affirmed this theory saying that their fish catch has been falling since the mangroves were cleared in the nearby areas.

The destruction of coral reefs can also greatly reduce fish production. “Once destroyed, they produce less than four tons per square kilometers per year,” a document from the Cebu-based Coastal Resource Management Project (CRMP) said.

The sustainable catch from a good reef over 10 years is about 200 tons of fish while from a destroyed reef is only 72 tons, it added. Dr. Al Licuanan, one of the country’s leading coral scientists, said the entire country only has average coral cover.

Newsweek, in its special report, cited dynamite and cyanide fishing as the cause of the destruction of the country’s coral reefs. “For an estimated 150,000 kilograms of sodium cyanide that is used in coral reefs each year, around $80 million is lost,” Cinches said.

Meanwhile, sea grasses in the country covers an area of 27,282 square kilometers. They are widely distributed throughout the country – from Bolinao Bay (Pangasinan) in the north, Palawan and the Cebu-Bohol-Siquijor area to the center, and Zamboanga and Davao in the South.

Among the diversified species found in the sea grass beds are fishes, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, crabs, scallops, mussels and snails. Shrimps spend the early stages of their lives in seagrass areas. A study done in five sea grass sites in the country identified a total of 1,384 individuals and 55 species from 25 fish families.

In recent years, scientists have identified one more blatant threat: climate change. Some sea fisheries will collapse as the world warms, while others boom, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out. Some species are most likely to move polewards as waters warm.

In inland waters, pollution has contributed to plunging fish harvest. “The increasing use of feed and chemicals in milkfish, tilapia and shrimp culture is not only polluting inland waters, but also reduces fish catch and endangers public health,” commented Dr. Flor Lacanilao, a retired marine science professor.

“An island nation, the Philippines necessarily depends, to a large extent, on its fishery resources for its food,” Senator Loren Legarda said in a statement. “Fish, which used to be among the cheapest sources of protein, is now more expensive than pork or chicken.”

A new kind of revolution is needed to catch up with the demand for fish. “New technologies, new breeds and newly domesticated species of fish offer great hope for the future,” The Economist said in a recent report.

That’s where “blue revolution” comes in. “On land, the green revolution allowed dramatic increases in crop production, with increased mechanization, and improved pest control and soil fertility through the addition of herbicides, pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers,” The Economist explained.

In recent reports, increased use of chemicals are considered contributors in the decrease of fishes harvested

So, if the same technique can be adopted in the waters, the sobriquet “blue revolution” (refers to the color of the ocean) came into existence. “The blue revolution has seen companies breeding fish to improve traits such as their growth rate, conversion of feed into flesh, resistance to disease, tolerance of cold and poor water, and fertility,” said The Economist.

Blue revolution actually refers to aquaculture, the farming of marine animals. “For every kilogram of dry feed, we get one kilogram of fish meat,” said Dr. Uwe Lohmeyer of the Deutsche Gesselschaft fur Technische Zusammernarbeit (GTZ), a German Technical Cooperation. “This is far more favorable rate than in the case of say, pigs: to produce the same quantity of pork, a farmer – given the same quality of inputs – has to provide three kilograms of feed.”

It was the Malay emigrants who introduced the first fish ponds in the Philippines long before the Chinese traders came to the country. “Our fishpond practices in most respects are similar to those of the Indonesians rather than those of fishpond caretakers in the mainland of China,” said a Filipino fishery expert.

Aquaculture species produced in the country today are seaweed, milkfish (bangus), tilapia, brackishwater shrimp, oysters and mussels. According the recent report released by the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics, aquaculture contributed the biggest share to the total fisheries output at 49.80 percent. Milkfish, tilapia, tiger prawn and seaweed accounted 90.18 percent of the total aquaculture production.

But like most technologies, aquaculture has its shares of liabilities. “The inevitable expansion of fish farming in the developing countries could cause increased pollution, greater damage to already vulnerable wild fisheries, and competition for water and land use,” the World Fish Center pointed out. “This poses a potential threat to the environment as well as the livelihoods and food security of poor people in developing countries.”

Like most technologies, aquaculture is not perfect. This must be the reason why Dr. Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, doesn’t consider aquaculture as the ultimate solution to the problem of fish shortage. “Aquaculture brings its own ecological challenges,” he was quoted as saying by Scientific America.

But he added that there are better aquaculture technologies which are already evolving rapidly. “Public funds and prizes could promote research to advance them,” he suggested. “With sensible global policies, the blue revolution can indeed become a major force for improved human nutrition, economic well-being and environmental sustainability.”

There are people who believe there’s future for aquaculture, if lessons from the past should be heeded. “The ultimate success of aquaculture may lie in the ability of its developers to leapfrog the mistakes of agriculture – to resist putting chemicals in the water and hormones in the fry, and consuming vast quantities of resources to get their product out,” said Anne Platt McGinn, a researcher with the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

“The fish farmers’ ticket to the future is to align their business with the growing movement toward integrated, closed-loop production that is already making waves in the agricultural and timber industries,” she added.

“The ultimate success of aquaculture may lie in the ability of its developers to leapfrog the mistakes of agriculture – to resist putting chemicals in the water and hormones in the fry, and consuming vast quantities of resources to get their product out”

Oct 2018 Health and Lifestyle

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