Philippine ocean conservation group sounds alarm over dwindling sardine stock

Food insecurity.

A marine conservation group expressed alarm about the declining sardine stocks in Philippine waters due to overfishing and called on the government to expedite the implementation of the National Sardine Management Plan (NSMP). 

The NSMP was signed by former Agriculture Secretary William Dar on May 15, 2020, to boost science-based indicators for the sustainability of fish stocks, to distribute the benefits of conservation to sardine fishing communities and to strengthen science-based management for sustainable sardine fisheries by the end of 2025. 

Oceana Philippines Vice President Gloria Estenzo-Ramos said their organization called on the government to take action because local sardine fisherfolks are still struggling with their dwindling catch, two years after the signing of the NSMP.

Citing data from the Philippine Statistic Authority (PSA), Ramos said the volume of fisheries production significantly declined in the first quarter of 2022 from 973,620 metric tons (MT) to 971,501 MT or 0.2% compared to the same period in 2021. 

Of the 20 major species, the large drops in the production mainly comprised mud crab or ‘alimango’ (-24.8 percent), skipjack or ‘gulyasan’ (-20.2 percent), and fimbriated sardines or ‘tunsoy’ (-13.5 percent).

“The decline poses great threats to the livelihoods of the artisanal fisherfolk who depend on fishing,” Ramos told Maritime Fairtrade, adding that these fishermen have also been affected by rising fuel prices and the impacts of climate change.

In the Philippines, sardines make up approximately 15 percent of the total fish catch and are one of the most accessible sources of protein for Filipinos. It is among the most important commercial pelagic species in the country, accounting for 25 percent of the total commercial fishery production in 2018.

Due to cheap price and high protein, sardines are one of the most accessible fish species for Filipinos. Aside from their apparent economic value, sardines have great ecological importance to large predators such as tuna, mammals, and cetaceans because they are found in the basal part of the food web.

According to Ramos, over the past 15 years (2002-2018), average sardine production was approximately 333,743 MT or 15 percent of total marine capture fisheries production in the same period. Although there was an increasing trend in production from 2002 to 2009, there was a sharp decline from 2010 to 2011, and since then it has been stable in recent years.

Ramos said data from PSA showed that the catch of sardine species bali (tamban) and fimbriata (lawlaw/tuloy) plummeted from 442,045.74 MT in 2010 to 325,226.20 MT or 26.4 percent in 2019.

She said a large portion of the production comes from the East Sulu Sea/Sulu archipelagic waters. Other major fishing grounds are the Ragay Gulf-Ticao Pass-San Bernardino Strait, Bohol Sea, Moro Gulf-Illana Bay, Sibuguey Bay, and the Visayan Sea.

“Around 68 percent of production comes from the commercial fisheries sector while around 32 percent comes from the municipal fisheries sector. Approximately 48,000 workers are employed in the commercial capture fisheries and the allied canning/bottling industries that target small pelagics such as sardines,” Ramos added. 

No government action despite repeated calls

In recent years, Oceana has repeatedly called for implementation of the NSMP, which should already have been implemented in 12 fisheries management areas (FMAs) to address the alarming decline in sardine stocks in the country.

But since it is meant to be implemented from 2020 to 2025, only a few of the areas have implemented it at present even though its implementation is mandatory and not discretionary on the part of the governing authorities.

In December 2021, the country’s 12 FMAs were encouraged to comply with the NSMP to address declining stocks and the urgent need to manage sardine fisheries in the Philippines.

“We can no longer ignore the critical need to manage our sardine fisheries. This means that all Fisheries Management Areas must abide by the NSMP,” then-secretary Dar said during the 2021 FMA summit.

However, Ramos said that despite marching orders from the Department of Agriculture (DA) towards the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to issue implementing guidelines for the NSMP, there is still no action from the fisheries bureau.

“Midyear since its approval, only the FMA 7 (Sorsogon Bay, Ragay Gulf, Ticao Burias Pass, Cariaga Bay, Magueda Bay, San Bernardino Strait, Irong-Irong Bay, and Samar Sea) and FMA 12 (Balayan Bay, Calatagan Bay, Batangas Bay, Tayabas Bay, Tablas Strait, Mogpog Pass, and the Sibuyan Sea) adopted the NSMP through the regional fisheries Bureau 5 and 4a, respectively with their management body,” she added.   

The FMA 11 (Visayan Sea, Tañon Strait Protected Seascape, and Guimaras Strait) was the latest to comply with the NSMP by adding it to their FMA framework plan, according to Ramos as she urged the government to ensure proper fisheries management in the country.

Ramos said President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who is also the acting chief of the DA, may instruct all regional offices that oversee FMAs to submit what they have done to implement the NSMP and hold accountable those who fail or refuse to comply with the directive. 

She emphasized that NSMP envisions “a sustainable and equitably-shared sardine fishery that contributes to food security and increased income through responsible management.”

Fishing grounds are overfished 

Research showed that about 75 percent of the Philippines’ waters is overfished. “This is primarily because fishes are being harvested at a rate faster than they can reproduce,” said Ramos.  

“Overfishing will lead to the collapse of the fisheries and consequently threaten the food supply of the country,” she stressed.

It will also affect the environment, according to Ramos. “Even with a single species, say sardines, this may lead to commercial extinction and disturbance in the food web, especially since sardines are food items for larger, more commercially important species such as groupers and tunas.” 

She said this ecological imbalance can cause trophic cascades, where the top predator would be humans, and would lead to enhanced survival of the next lower trophic level, in this case the plankton, which would then lead to a decrease in sunlight and oxygen in the water which destroys the natural ecosystem. 

Save sardines from overexploitation 

The Philippines’ fisheries production declined due largely to the lower output of the marine municipal and commercial fisheries sectors. For Ramos, there should be strict enforcement of the ban on illegal fishing methods to save the country’s sardines which are now on the brink of collapse due to overfishing.

“Enforcement should be heightened to penalize transgressors, repeat offenders of fisheries laws should have their commercial licenses revoked, and those fishing without licenses should be filed criminal and civil cases. Having their cases heard by the administrative tribunal should not be allowed as they do not respect our laws,” she stressed. 

She encouraged the creation of more marine protected areas where fish can breed and thrive without the threats of overexploitation, unregulated coastal developments, and pollution. 

“Setting limits for fish catch and efforts will radically reduce overfishing issues and overproduction. This is through regional or seasonal closed seasons.”

Moreover, Ramos said educating decision-makers and the Filipino youth about sustainability and overfishing should be mainstreamed to understand the negative effects of overfishing and have a better appreciation of these fisheries resources. 

Ways to achieve food security 

For years, despite being rich in natural resources, challenges the Philippines faced have revolved around food security. According to a survey conducted by Social Weather Stations, over a tenth of all Filipinos, or about 2.5 million families, suffered involuntary hunger in the last quarter of 2021.

Food insecurity was highest, when the coronavirus pandemic forced the entire country into lockdown in March 2020 where even fishing at night was no longer an option.

But Ramos believes that the government will achieve food security in the country in the following ways:  

•          Urgent prioritization of concrete measures to manage the depleting fish stock through a science-based, participatory, transparent, and effective fisheries management system. 

•          Full implementation of the fisheries code including the vessel monitoring measures. 

•          Ensure that the NSMP is implemented in the 12 FMAs. 

•          That harvest control rules/measures are effectively implemented and there is an accountability mechanism. 

•          No nonsense implementation of the fisheries code against those in government who are in cahoots with the illegal commercial fishing sector.

In June, Oceana, along with artisanal fisherfolk groups, called on newly-installed President Marcos Jr. to continue the reforms made by the previous administration in combating illegal commercial fishing in municipal waters, and to achieve food and nutrition security and alleviate worsening poverty in coastal communities across the country.

“We need to prioritize the immediate need of the fisherfolk on livelihood support and that government should protect their rights in the municipal waters by implementing the ban on commercial fishing in municipal waters including vessel monitoring mechanisms,” Ramos said. 

“The threatening impacts of climate change are serious threats to the lives of the artisanal fisherfolks, who are the most vulnerable and among the poorest in the Philippine society. Much needs to be done and we need to act now, together,” she added. 

Top photo credit: iStock/ Davide_Lorpesti

All other photos credit: Oceana

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