By Dr. Emil Q. Javier
‘There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?’ – Robert Kennedy
Fully exploiting the potential of our vast fisheries and aquatic resources rural poverty and lack of productivity of Philippine agriculture trace their roots to many causes. Parts 1 and 2 of this series called attention to three of the most serious shortcomings, namely 1) problems associated with small, fragmented farm holdings, 2) insufficient linkages of primary producers to markets, and 3) lack of product diversification and value adding (processing) especially at the village level.
The fourth, and last, shortcoming has to do with our failure to fully exploit the potential of our vast fisheries and aquatic resources.
The poorest Filipinos among the poor are the 1.6 million households of fisherfolk and coastal dwellers who rely on fishing for a significant part of their food needs and incomes. The disparity was clearly demonstrated in a survey in 2000, which showed that the mean annual income of households whose heads were fishermen was only P70,000 versus P144,000 for households in general.
And yet we have vast fisheries and aquatic resources which we have not sufficiently tapped. While we have only 10 million hectares of lands suitable for agriculture out of a total land mass of 30 million hectares, we have 220 million hectares of territorial waters including our exclusive economic zone (EEZ), 750,000 hectares of inland waters (lakes, rivers, reservoirs) and a coastline of 17,460 kilometers.
The fishing industry contributed P240 billion to our economy in 2015. There are three subsectors, namely 1) commercial fisheries, 2) municipal fisheries and 3) aquaculture, each of which contributed P65 billion, P81 billion, and P93 billion, respectively.
Municipal fishing is catching of fish with boats weighing three tons or less. Commercial fishing is fishing with boats with tonnage in excess of three tons. Coastal waters within 15 kilometers from shore are reserved for small, artisanal, municipal fishermen.
On the other hand, artificial culture of fish (aquaculture) is conducted in three kinds of water environments i.e. in 1) inland fresh waters, 2) coastal brackish waters, and 3) salty marine waters. Their values of production in 2015 were P22 billion, P51 billion and P12 billion, respectively. The principal cultured fish/aquatic species are milkfish, tilapia, shrimp/prawns and seaweeds.
Sadly, fisheries production like most of the rest of agriculture is declining or at best stagnant during the last decade. Our inland and coastal waters are degraded and overfished. We have not invested enough in modern vessels and fishing gear to enable our commercial fishing fleet to go far into deep waters and into our EEZ and beyond. We have not done enough to establish fish ports with the appropriate dry and cold storage facilities to minimize post harvest losses which can go as high as 25-40 percent. We have not invested enough in aquaculture and development of fish products that can compete in the world market.
The degree of under exploitation of our fisheries and aquatic resources is most empathically shown by our fish and fish products exports vis-a-vis our ASEAN neighbors which have far less fisheries resources than we do (except Indonesia which is archipelagic like us).
In 2015, our fish and fish production exports amounted to only US$473 million. For the same year, the fish exports of Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand were US$4.3 billion, US$2.6 billion, and US$1.7 billion, respectively. Considering our vast fisheries resources there is absolutely no reason we cannot aspire to export US$2.0 billion.
Regulation of Fishing Efforts and Protection of Fishery Habitats
The obvious most immediate need is to arrest the progressive decline of fish catch in our inland waters and coastal waters. The fishing efforts of both commercial and municipal fishers are beyond sustainable levels. We need to protect and rehabilitate our coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass and algae beds, and other soft-bottom communities. We need to establish more protected areas and sanctuaries where the fish may spawn and resolutely enforce close fishing seasons to allow immature, juvenile fish to grow to marketable size.
Of special concern are the coral reef areas covering 27,000 square kilometers which contribute 20 percent of total capture fisheries. Philippine coral reefs are world renown for being home to 533 species of corals and about 2,500 marine fish species. In comparison the world famous barrier reef in Australia has only 350 coral species and 1500 fish species.
Due to wanton physical destruction of coral reefs as well as overfishing, fish – abundance in our coral reef waters had been estimated to have declined to 5-20 tons fish per square kilometer compared with 100 tons per square kilometer for pristine coral reefs.
National Scientist Angel Alcala of Silliman University estimates that only about 1,250 square kilometers or five percent of the total coral reef areas are covered by marine sanctuaries. Thus, we have a long way to go to approach the 15 percent target. Moreover of the existing marine protected areas (MPAs) established by BFAR and the local government units (LGUs) and managed with the support of local communities and NGOs, only 20-25 percent are considered functioning effectively.
Increased Harvesting in Offshore Fisheries Beyond the Continental Shelf, in the EEZ Waters and Beyond
We can alleviate intense fishing pressure on near shore stocks and minimize conflict between municipal and commercial fishers by encouraging and providing incentives to the latter to acquire modern and fishing gear to enable them to go farther into deep waters into our EEZ and beyond. However, we need to conduct exploratory fishing in the EEZ waters and strategic non-traditional fishing grounds to determine their full biological and economic potential. By one estimate we can harvest as much as 200,000-300,000 metric tons per year from our EEZ.
More Investments in Aquaculture
Compared with the aquaculture industries in Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand, we have a long way to go in further expanding fish pens, fish cages and fish ponds in our lakes, rivers, reservoirs, in coastal, brackish water areas as well as sea-based aquaculture (mariculture.) We need to improve hatchery and grow-out technologies for existing species and provide investment incentives to hatcheries and brood stock farms. We need to scale up research and development (R&D) on biology, breeding, fry production, nutrition, culture, and fish health for new species like crabs, seabass, groupers, abalone and may be even the Pacific Bluefin tuna.. We need to develop more large scale mariculture parks, provided certain areas are reserved for small fishermen and their cooperatives.
Improved Fishery Policies, Management Systems and Structures
There is so much upside potential for our fisheries sector. However, in addition to addressing the technological, ecological and economic challenges, we need to have the appropriate fisheries policies, management systems and institutions in place. Additional efforts are needed to strengthen the management capabilities of LGUs, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local communities whose participation and cooperation are pivotal in natural resources management. Better coordination is needed among agencies for the proper enforcement of fisheries rules and regulations.
Inconsistencies and conflicts in policies such as those between intensive fisheries development and environment conservation need to be resolved. The brewing conflict in the disposition of fish pens in Laguna de Bay is a case in point.
Finally, fisheries as one of the sectors under the direction of the Department of Agriculture (DA) historically has not received the attention and resource it deserves. We join the call of the fisheries stakeholders and the scientific community for a separate Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DFAR) whose immediate mandate is the realization of our fisheries potential.
Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP). For any feedback, email email@example.com.