Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
If we don’t watch out, we may not have enough fish, once dubbed “the poor man’s protein,” to feed our growing population.
Like the other vital resources, Philippine fisheries are about to collapse – a victim of the almost unabated “plunder of the commons.” As defined, commons are those vacant lands and all water that are considered a God-given set of resources for the people to consume as much as needed.
But in doing so, we have tended to abuse these resources even to the point of exhaustion. Despite our vast marine resources (220 million hectares of coastal and oceanic territorial water area), we are now experiencing a shortfall in fish supply.
The unthinkable has come to pass: Early this year, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that the government imported 60,000 metric tons of small pelagic fishes “to cover part of an expected shortage in local supply.”
The importation was due to the devastation caused by Typhoon Odette (international name: Rai). But somehow, if the present rapid population growth and declining trend in fish production continue, fish would be out of reach of the common tao.
Fishing has been an important source of livelihood for Filipinos, fish being the second staple food – next to rice. “About 62 per cent of the population lives in the coastal zone,” says World Bank’s Philippine Environment Monitor.
On average, every Filipino consumes about 98.6 grams of fish and fish products each day. The fishing industry provides employment to about one million Filipinos, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).
“Our problem is population,” observed a noted newspaper columnist. “We are having more children faster than we can grow the food to feed them.”
A former government official seemed to agree. “Demand for food is growing fast not because our incomes are growing but because our population is growing at an alarming rate,” he said, adding that about two million mouths are being added to be fed every year.
If increased demand is met solely by marine capture fisheries, such increased pressure on the fisheries sector could lead to an eventual collapse of fisheries and the fishing industry, which employs more than one million people (about 5% of the national labor force).
“All fisheries are showing decline in total catch and per unit effort (total number of fish caught per unit of time) despite increasing effort,” said the World Bank report. “Fish are harvested at a level 30 to 50 per cent higher than the natural production capacity.”
This phenomenon is happening not only in the Philippines but also in other parts of the world. “Although worldwide environmental degradation of the oceans contributed to the decline of marine life, overfishing is the primary cause of dwindling fish populations,” explained Peter Weber, author of Net Loss: Fish, Jobs, and the Marine Environment.
As supply falls behind demand, fish becomes a more expensive food source. As such, fish is no longer “a cheap meat dish,” to quote a marketing slogan used in the United Kingdom in the 1950s.
The Philippines is among the largest fish producers in the world. The commercial, municipal, and aquaculture fisheries account for 36, 30, and 24 percent of the total fisheries yield, respectively. Its annual total fisheries yield is estimated to be worth around US$70- UD$110 billion (equivalent to about 2-4 percent of the country’s gross domestic production over the years).
“During the past decades, the people have enjoyed the abundance of the Philippine marine fishery resource,” the PSA said. “Ask the old fisherfolks how they culled their harvests. Many of them would say that fish sized with less than a foot rule will automatically be thrown back to the water.
“Back then, they even had the luxury to choose the most palatable fish among the wide variety of species thriving in a particular fishing ground,” the PSA added.
Then, modernization happened. “More and more municipal fishing boats became motorized. A lot of commercial fishing vessels became bigger and more powerful,” the PSA reported. “Fishing gears have evolved from a simple tool to highly-sophisticated fishing gadgets that could sweep the bottom of the fishing grounds of almost everything, including the precious coral reefs.”
In the Philippines, an estimated 10-15 percent of the total fisheries come from coral reefs. “Coral reef fish yields range from 20 to 25 metric tons per square kilometer per year for healthy reefs,” says Dr. Angel C. Alcala, the former environment secretary.
As the population continues to balloon, the demand for fish – both for food consumption and other uses – has increased considerably. Consequently, many of the households from the coastal barangays have made fishing as their source of livelihood.
“The increase in the population coupled with the improved fishing technology brought stress to the country’s marine and coastal ecosystem, thereby affecting the fishery resource,” the PSA said.
“We still have enough fish now, but with global warming we may have problems in the next five to ten years unless we do something about it,” warned Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero, a fishery expert and an academician with the National Academy of Science and Technology.
Global warming refers to an increase in average global temperatures, which in turn causes climate change. According to Dr. Guerrero, climatic changes affecting the fisheries sector would affect the entire nation, considering that fish is a staple food and millions depend on it for livelihood.
His observation has been confirmed by a recent report released by the United Nations. “At least three quarters of the globe’s key fishing grounds may become seriously impacted by changes in circulation as a result of the ocean’s natural pumping systems fading and falling,” the UN report said.
One day, we may wake up with no fish to eat anymore. So, let’s stop this madness of overharvesting our fishery resources.
The statement of American President George W. Bush is a great reminder for all of us: “I know that human beings and fish can coexist peacefully.”
Let’s give fish a chance to recover!