The Philippine government’s policy of appeasement in its maritime dispute with China now threatens the livelihoods of the wider Southeast Asian fisherfolk as the fishery stock in South China Sea is almost depleted and local fishermen are being chased away by the Chinese fishing militia.
Because of the maritime disputes in the South China Sea—the common fish source of most Southeast Asian nations—commercial fishers are forced to look for other fishing grounds, mainly within their countries’ municipal waters. This move serves as a double whammy to the local fishing communities as they are driven away from the South China Sea and crowded out by the big commercial fishing vessels in the municipal waters.
No place for politics and special interest
Filipino commercial fishing companies have even asked lawmakers to enact a new law that will reverse the prevailing law which protect local fishermen and allow “small and medium” commercial fishing vessels to exploit marine resources within 15 kilometers from the shoreline.
The fishing companies found their champion in Cebu congressman Pablo John Garcia, who has already filed a proposal, House Bill No. 7853 (HB 7853), in the Philippine House of Representatives.
But the bill has met strong opposition from groups of small fishermen, civil society organizations and environmental groups, like Oceana, a U.S. non-profit organization founded by actor Ted Danson and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The opposers claim the bill will violate the Philippine Constitution, adversely affect the livelihood of about two million Filipino fisherfolks and, if enacted into law, irreversibly damage the fish supply not only of the Philippines but its neighboring countries as well.
Under the country’s prevailing Fisheries Code, town or city governments have jurisdiction over municipal waters and shall be responsible for their management, conservation, utilization, and disposition.
The proposed bill, however, will expand the possible area of operations of commercial fishing vessels within municipal waters which serve as the daily food source of small fisherfolk.
Helping the vulnerable local fishing community
The opposing parties launched an online petition demanding that the House of Representatives junk HB 7853. So far, the petition has been signed by around 200 individuals from 1,400 fisherfolk groups and 30 civil society organizations across the country.
Oceana Philippines said similar proposals have been common in the country and show a pervasive violation of the law and preferential rights of small fishermen.
“This (HB 7853) should never be allowed to become law as it is unconstitutional and violates the constitutionally-guaranteed rights of our artisanal fisherfolks to preferential access of the municipal waters and will bring conflicts in accessing fishing grounds apart from being a real threat to food security,” Gloria Estenzo-Ramos, vice president of Oceana Philippines, told Maritime Fairtrade.
Ramos stressed that municipal waters are significant and highly productive areas that host important marine habitats such as coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves.
“These waters serve as breeding grounds and shelter for fishes and other marine organisms. We must ensure that they are healthy and resilient to the impacts of the current climate crisis and health emergency we all face,” Ramos said.
Oceana has been at the forefront in opposing HB 7853 and has submitted a position paper to the House of Representatives in February signifying its opposition to the bill. The organization has also been actively supporting local governments’ efforts in monitoring, control and surveillance to ensure that municipal waters are protected from illegal fishing.
“Allowing commercial companies in municipal waters will worsen the exploitation of the country’s fisheries. This bill will unfairly displace our artisanal fisherfolk who depend on municipal waters for their food and livelihood,” Ramos added.
High risk of depleting fishery
Citing recent studies showing that 70 percent of Philippine waters are now overfished which resulted in the decline of both commercial and municipal fisheries production since 2010, Ramos said, “allowing commercial fishing vessels in the municipal waters will further worsen the rapidly declining fish catch in municipal waters.”
This brings about an urgent need for science-based and sound management plans and mechanisms to sustainably manage the fisheries and fish stocks in the country.
Ramos cautioned that “opening up municipal waters will result in more conflicts between municipal and commercial fishers. They are already competing at different levels of capacity since commercial fishers have bigger boats, and more sophisticated and efficient gears, while the nearly two million municipal fishers only use smaller boats and limited resources in terms of capital and manpower.
“The current small pelagic fisheries (scad and sardines) indicate declining fish catch per unit effort due to overfishing.”
According to Ramos, changes in species composition have been observed in many fishing grounds: “anchovies have replaced sardines, more squid are being caught than fish, and many more other examples.”
Due to this race to catch more fish, commercial fishing operations are on the hunt for more fishing grounds. The latest trend shows that the volume of fisheries production both for commercial and municipal fisheries is declining.
Giving a chance for fish stock to regenerate
Ramos explained that most of the country’s critical habitats mangroves, seagrass, and coral reefs are home to many young fish and also affect the fish supply of neighboring countries.
“These are highly productive areas and are crucial in the life cycle of many marine organisms including pelagic fishes, such as sardines.”
The 15-km delineation, a limit to resource access, together with restrictions on types of gears and destructive fishing methods, is necessary for ecosystem sustainability.
“Allowing commercial fishing in municipal waters will open these areas to the use of heavy fishing gears which can damage the nearby coral reefs. Protecting municipal waters against unsustainable and illegal fishing will add another layer of protection and decrease exploitation to the local government’s coral reef ecosystem.”
Ramos likewise said, unlike commercial fishers, most municipal fishers catch fish more sustainably. “They use efficient traditional fishing gears with minimal impact to the coral reefs.”
Noting the country’s Fisheries Code which restricts commercial fishing within municipal waters, Ramos said, “The proposed HB 7853 attempts to legitimize an otherwise prohibited act. As a general rule, the amended Fisheries Code prohibits commercial fishing within municipal waters.
“Small-scale fishers and commercial fishers cannot co-exist as this situation will aggravate the built-in conflict between the two sectors.
“We oppose this bill for setting aside the preferential access to municipal waters given by no less than the Constitution to marginalized fisherfolks. Moreover, allowing commercial fishing within municipal waters will increase overfishing, destruction of marine habitats, and undue competition with our vulnerable sectors and aggravate conflicts now existing between municipal and commercial fishers.”
Authorities urged to take care of marginalized fishermen
Oceana, together with civic and fisherfolk groups, have urged the Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, National Fisheries and Research Development Institute, and other stakeholders to oppose HB 7853 which they believe “will lead to further overexploitation of our already depleted fish stocks and will also negatively affect the lives of municipal fisherfolk and their families”.
They call on national government agencies to reject the HB 7853 and facilitate the protection of municipal waters from illegal fishing.
Likewise, they encourage lawmakers to practice evidence-based legislation, especially for a bill that affects the lives of almost two million fisherfolks — the poorest of the poor.
“They must gather scientific evidence on the impacts of commercial fishing operations in already overfished municipal waters and how these impacts will affect the livelihood of fisherfolk, who cannot compete with the industrial fishing gears of commercial fishing operators,” Ramos said.
“So far, we have been successful in mobilizing strong opposition against this bill from fisherfolks, local government officials, and even congressmen and senators,” she added.