National Fisherfolks DayThe Philippine government has declared May to be the National Month of the Ocean, meant to celebrate our seas which are among the richest in biodiversity in the world. At the end of Oceans month, we pay tribute to tireless efforts of our fishermen by celebrating National Fisherfolk’s Day.  Local government units are expected to comply with a government directive meant to give due recognition to fisherfolk who are the rightful stewards and beneficiaries of our oceans and its natural resources.

Our country’s reliance on the sea is incalculable. Sixty-four out of the country’s 80 provinces, including major cities, are coastal. Around 40 million Filipinos rely directly on the sea for food and livelihood. Fish is the main source of protein for the country’s 90 million people.

But our marine ecosystems are under severe threat.  Less than 5% of our coral reefs are in excellent condition. Half of our seagrass meadows have been lost in the last 50 years, and 75% of our mangrove cover has disappeared in the last 90 years.

Our rich marine ecosystems have made the country one of the largest fish producers in the world, with an estimated annual fishery yield worth USD 70 to 110 billion. The fishery sector contributes more than 2% to the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Yet, fisherfolks remain among the poorest groups in the country.

A 2009 study by the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) revealed that poverty incidence in fishing communities is 41.4%, higher than the national poverty incidence of 22.9%. Data from the Bureau of Agricultural shows that average fisherfolk income is at PHP 169.43 per day.  

If current trends in the declining quality of marine ecosystems continue in parallel with unabated overfishing taking place in our seas, our fisherfolk stand to be much poorer than they currently are. And so, despite the honor being accorded them this month, their reality and future prospects don’t give fisherfolk, who risk their lives at sea, much reason to celebrate.

National fisherfolks day flotilla

Fishing in the seas has become a battleground where small fisherfolk are at a disadvantage compared to giant commercial vessels. In Bicol for example, the BFAR’s Philippine Fisheries Profile of 2010 reveals that a total of 387 commercial fishing vessels in the area take around 68,788.43 metric tons of fish per year, as opposed to the mere 147,486.11 tons caught in total by 54,715 municipal fishing boats.

At a Fisheries Summit in Bicol, fisheries expert Dr. Vic Soliman presented findings of a local study that mirrors the sad state of the country’s fisheries: 1) fish stocks are overexploited; 2) fish caught are mostly immature; 3) fishing efforts expended are beyond what is sustainable; 4) increased effort among fisherfolk don’t yield added catch; and 5) high-value fish are already depleted.

While there are policies that govern protection of our marine resources, as well as the communities whose livelihoods depend on them, implementation is painfully slow, if they are being implemented at all. Enforcement is extremely weak owing to lack of capacity and financial resources.

Challenges include rising cases of illegal fishing among commercial and municipal fishers, commercial vessels that encroach on the 15 kilometer zone exclusive to small-scale municipal fisherfolk, and poaching by foreign vessels.

National fisherfolks day flotillaThe government must put an end to overfishing to make sure we still have fish for our fisherfolk to catch—and for Filipinos to eat. The best way to do this is to 1) ensure that the protection, rehabilitation, and conservation of Philippine seas are a national priority; and 2) create and immediately implement a roadmap that eliminates overfishing, and allows the recovery of the Philippine fish stocks and marine ecosystems to continuously provide for our future needs.

In particular, there is a need to 1) harmonize existing laws and policies which are fragmented under different agencies and departments; 2) establish a national network of marine protected areas that is based on the connectivity of ecosystems instead of political boundaries; 3) no new fishing licenses; and 4) abolish commercial exemptions and keep municipal waters exclusive to small scale fishers.

The road to recovery of our seas and fisheries is a long one, but it has to start now. National Fisherfolk’s Day should not be about lip service and tokenism, but about solutions and action.

 

Vince Cinches is Greenpeace Southeast Asia's oceans campaigner based in the Philippines.