Fri. May 27th, 2022

My recent article on the state of the rice industry and the plight of Filipino farmers made an immense impact on my readers, not a few who do not want to react on social media least they are identified, urged me to tackle the drowning fishing industry and gasping fisherfolks.

Typhoon “Pablo” that devastated Surigao del Sur and Davao Oriental in 2012 and the recent howler “Odette” that hit Southern Leyte and Surigao del Norte bring to mind the many stories of misery among victims of the super-typhoons. While we are confronted with statistics, what is obviously overlooked is that many of the victims were fishermen.

Fisherfolks are both victims of calamities and neglect. And yet we have very rosy statistics.

Our fishing ground is about 2 million square kilometers, more than 200,000 hectares of brackish ponds, and hundreds of thousands of hectares of lakes and lagoons. In Mindanao alone, we have Liguasan marsh — which is estimated to be about 300,000 hectares, Marawi Lake, Lake Sebu in South Cotabato, and Agusan marsh.

Our gulf waters are protected by islets and mountains. Sulu sea all the way to Basilan and turtle islands and up to Palawan are geographical advantage that is supposed to make us a top fish-producing nation.

All these are vast potentials for aquaculture.

We are all enrapt with the over-fished West Philippine Sea we forgot all we need are hatcheries so we can have fish fries and fingerlings for our aqua farms. We even import bangus (milkfish) fries.

Sad, but many of our hatcheries were either closed by Presidential Commission on Good Government sequestration teams or those of the Southern Philippines Development Authority were simply abandoned.

But look at this. Of the P85 billion budget for the Department of Agriculture (DA), only P3 billion is earmarked for fisheries. Given the above-cited statistics, the potential of the fishing industry is barely untapped or simply neglected.

In fact, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) should have been spun off the DA and ought to be another Department. If it has to stay as an attached agency to DA, it should at least be allocated a bigger chunk.

The BFAR actually is not merely focused on fish as the name implies. It too is in charge of other marine resources among them carrageenan, prawns and shrimps, lobsters, abalone, mussels, and crabs to name a few. It is also on top of aquaculture.

With the vast areas that can be tapped, aquaculture is the country’s promising source of food.

Bangus and tilapia are among the popularly raised varieties raised in bamboo fish pens either in the sea, brackish water, lakes, or lagoons. Well-managed and well-funded aquaculture projects like those of Alcantaras in Sarangani produce not only bangus and tilapia but groupers, sea bass, and pompano which are exported worldwide.

In 2003, then Secretary Luisito Lorenzo, whose family has a pineapple business in Region 10 and large banana plantations in Region 11, fast-tracked the development by a Filipino using genetic enhancement, of the Tilapia “Get Excel” variety that grows to palm table-size every three months (beating Costa Rica’s “Lift” variety’s four months and our traditional variety’s six months). Subsequently, he launched 14 hatcheries all over the country. During its launching at Munoz, Nueva Ecija, Tilapia’s retail price per kilo went as low as P35.

To perk the food chain, Sec. Lorenzo also helped agribusinessman Rene Tayag be the first to set-up inside Clark Ecozone a processing company called TGA Foods Corporation for ready-to-cook whole tilapia, fillets, skins and smoked tilapia. Called Nile Pacific, their products were soon being retailed at Giants and Safeway Stores in the US East Coast. But due to higher costs of production, not many are enticed to export the Philippine tilapia, another case for both government and private sector to further discuss.

The late congressman Allen Quimpo will always be remembered for starting to plant mangroves in 500 square meters in 1990. With the help of several organizations, environmental groups and Rotary and Lions Clubs worldwide, Aklan’s Bhakawan EcoPark has grown to 220 hectares before he died five years ago. Besides the marine resources that had grown for almost 30 years, the mangroves have been credited for stopping short the deadly typhoon surge that Yolanda (Haiyan) generated, and saving the population of Aklan province.

Bhakawan EcoPark in Kalibo: The place provides an excellent breeding ground for various kinds of fishes as well as mollusks, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds of different kinds. The wooden walkway blends perfectly with the surrounding highlighting further the aim to showcase the place as natural as possible in order to boost awareness regarding the importance of mangroves in the ecosystem.

Nevertheless, even with small concern but well-supervised projects from the start, fish farmers can make a modest and viable livelihood.

Along the roadside of Tugbok, Davao City, several families have ponds where they raise catfish which are best-sellers to motorists. They were originally supervised by the BFAR Regional.

The BFAR classifies local production into commercial fisheries, municipal fisheries, and aquaculture.

Commercial fisheries refer to fishing done in offshore waters using big fishing vessels. The tuna canneries in General Santos City and Marina Tuna of Davao City are among those that belong to this category.

The General Santos tuna fishing operators however have felt the pinch of irresponsible fishing using purse seine nets that catch even immature tuna, destructive fishing that uses trawlers that destroy coral formations.

Word is out they are now importing 80 percent of their tuna requirements for their canneries.

Marina Tuna bossman Domingo Ang is also into tuna fishing but, like his father, he advocates the use of hand line or hook and line as the best fishing method for sustainable selective fishing.

Ang said that fishermen in municipal fishing grounds can improve their income by also engaging in tuna fishing. However, he said these fisher folks should be provided with sturdy fiberglass fishing boats which are equipped with freezers, generator sets, solar panels, and satellite phones for emergencies and SOS messages.

With these facilities, they can fish for high-value coral fish like groupers and engage in mariculture.

A completely equipped fiberglass fishing boat would cost about P500,000. Ang explained that the boat can be jointly owned and operated by three fishermen. He said that government banks should open a special window for this program from where fishermen partnerships or cooperatives can avail of low-interest loans with a grace period.

The prospects are unlimited but fishermen should have the right gears. There are government-supervised fish ports equipped with refrigeration facilities but limited in capacity.

“With government support, they can be lifted out of poverty.”

At the beginning of a 26-page white paper entitled “Valuing and Managing the Philippines Marine Resources toward a Prosperous Ocean-Based Blue Economy”, the authors established that the Philippines has a coastline of 37,008 -longer than that of China, the United States and Japan.

As an archipelago of 7, 107 islands, our marine-based wealth spans roughly 70% of our legitimately defined aggregate geographic area. We have however, since time immemorial, been single-minded in using our traditional natural resources, such as land and forestry.

Based primary and available secondary data, the marine ecosystem (still excluding the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zones) can contribute US$967 billion to our economy, if properly harnessed. 

This is home to an estimated 55 million, or 60% of its 2012 population, covering more than half of the municipalities and cities charted in 2009.

Given its largely untapped potential and vast implications, the creation of a separate Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources, is long overdue in building a so-called “blue economy”.

Fish being a universal food product, the markets are endless.

Domingo Ang said that in his case, he had established a marketing link with China, for starters and that prior to the pandemic, he has begun exporting tuna direct to China from Davao City.

He said that while China is the biggest fish producer, it is also the world’s biggest fish consumer. Their government encourages massive fish cultivation which is supported by efficient technology.

In his talks with Chinese counterparts, an endeavor can be reached between fishing cooperatives in the Philippines and buyers from China.

Why not if this would alleviate our fishing sector from misery and would contribute to our food security?

China is now our top export market. And again, our markets to the United States and Western Europe are generally untapped.

As I write this piece, galunggong which was an issue during the snap elections in 1986 for being priced at P7 per kilo is now sold at P220 to P250 per kilo. And we import them.

What an irony.

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