Philippine intensifies efforts to curb illegal fishing, drug trafficking

Risk to society, economy and livelihood.

Government agencies focus on countering the increasingly serious problems that threaten national interest.  

By Liz Lagniton, Philippine correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade

Illegal fishing is a prevalent problem in the Philippine seas that continues to challenge authorities. In recent years, the government has been trying various schemes to address the issue that pervades the Philippine archipelago.

Recently, the Philippines stepped up its efforts to combat illegal fishing and other unlawful activities that permeate the country’s waters amid coronavirus pandemic, by strengthening the partnership between the country’s Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA-BFAR) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) Maritime Group (PNP-MG) through a memorandum of agreement (MOA).

The two agencies have signed an agreement granting personnel of PNP the right to embark on any BFAR available vessel as a “shiprider” to conduct joint seaborne patrol. 

Under the agreement, the BFAR shall act as the lead agency in the enforcement of fisheries and marine conservation laws while PNP-MG shall provide personnel to augment the bureau’s workforce in the conduct of seaborne patrol operations, especially in the aspect of law enforcement and investigation.

“The MOA aims to maximize the two agencies’ capacity and consolidate their efforts to prevent, deter, and eliminate illegal fishing activities and to protect the marine environment from overexploitation,” retired Coast Guard commodore Eduardo Gongona, who now heads BFAR, told Maritime Fairtrade. 

“With this partnership, the DA-BFAR and the PNP-MG are expecting to be more effectively address illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing to continuously ensure the sustainable livelihood of our fisherfolk and the conservation of our marine resources,” he explained. 

BFAR Director Eduardo Gongona. Image credit: National Defense College of the Philippines. 

IUU fishing is a growing problem

Addressing IUU fishing activity is a long-standing commitment of the government starting with the amendment of the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998. Republic Act 10654, otherwise known as “An Act to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing,” provides higher penalties for apprehended fishermen and boat owners while mandating better monitoring systems to stop IUU fishing.

Based on the report published by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the BFAR released in March, IUU fishing in the country ranged from 27 percent to 40 percent in 2019. This translates to around P62 billion (US$1.2 billion) in annual losses.

The ban on commercial fishing in municipal waters was supposed to safeguard the livelihood of artisanal fishermen who cannot compete with the bigger boats, but illegal fishing by fellow artisanal fishermen and commercial fishermen alike continued to be a problem in the country.

Gongona said they conduct regular seaborne patrols using its law enforcement vessels and in collaboration with other national government agencies like the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). “Currently, we have two units of multi-mission offshore vessels, 10 units of 30-meter MCS vessels, four units of 11-meter MCS vessels, and 87 units of 24-40-footer patrol boats that we use for these operations.” 

He said as of September 2021, BFAR Fisheries Protection and Law Enforcement Group reported a total of 489 arrests, including 436 fishing vehicles comprising municipal boats, and small, medium, and large commercial fishing vessels.

“The intensification of our anti-IUUF campaign, which started in 2016, has resulted in the continuous increase in the number of apprehensions each year. We attribute this increase in apprehensions to the increase also of our law enforcement effort,” Gongona said. 

Using technology to fight crimes

BFAR has been upgrading its law enforcement capability program with cutting-edge technology such as visible infrared imaging radiometer suite (VIIRS) and Integrated Marine Environment Monitoring System (IMEMS).

Both VIIRS and IMEMS are designed to amplify the government’s monitoring, control, and surveillance of the country’s coastal waters and exclusive economic zone.

“With these projects being carried out, BFAR and PNP-MG are optimistic that IUU fishing will be stopped in Philippine waters to ensure the safety of our fisherfolk and the conservation of our marine resources,” the BFAR said in an earlier statement. 

Ensuring food security

When asked about the country’s fish production, Gongona said: “Despite the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, the country’s total fisheries production remains sufficient to provide for the country’s fish requirement. In 2020, the total fisheries production, including seaweeds was 4,400,373.01 metric tons. The capture fisheries subsector contributed 47.21 percent while the aquaculture subsector contributed 52.79 percent of the total production.” 

“On our part in the DA-BFAR, we will continue to exert efforts to achieve food security through marine or capture fisheries, and sustained support to small, artisanal fisherfolk and their families,” he said. 

While the MOA primarily covers the enforcement of fishery laws and marine conservation measures, Gongona said, “this mechanism would definitely serve as deterrence against all crimes using the sea as the medium.” 

Police is also stepping up enforcement against drug trafficking

In September, PNP chief General Guillermo Eleazar ordered the police maritime group to guard the territorial waters and coastlines against the entry of illegal drugs. He ordered to strengthen the coordination with the PCG as part of the relentless campaign against illegal drugs. 

Eleazar said this move is to counter the activities of international and local drug syndicates wherein the illegal drugs are being unloaded in the international waters and later picked up by their local contacts and eventually smuggles into the country.

“In our relentless campaign against illegal drugs as ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte and Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año, I have already directed our maritime group to strengthen the coordination and interoperability with the PCG to shield our territorial waters and coastlines from smuggling of illegal drugs into the country,” Eleazar said.

Eleazar’s order came following the series of drug operations conducted in September in Zambales, Bataan, and Cavite where they were able to confiscate more or less 809 kilos of shabu and arrested 11 big-time drug traffickers. 

The confiscated shabu was the biggest drug haul to date for this year, and President Duterte wanted to further intensify the campaign against illegal drugs. 

The chief of police likewise stressed the need for strong coordination and good working relationship with other law enforcement agencies as this will strengthen the fighting chance to finally halt the threat of illegal drugs in the country.

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Liz Lagniton

Liz Lagniton

Liz Lagniton, our Philippine correspondent, is based in Manila. She is a former journalist for The Manila Times. She has an interest in writing feature stories to bring out the human interest to readers.

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