Fisherfolk and conservation groups are urging the Philippine government to find ways to enforce new provisions in the fisheries law that require fishing vessels to comply with monitoring measures.
The new provisions are embodied in Republic Act No. 10654, enacted in 2015, which amended the Philippine Fisheries Code to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.
Five years after the passage of RA 10654, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) finally heeded the complaints of small fishermen and issued Fisheries Administrative Order (FAO) 266, which outlined rules on vessel monitoring and required an electronic reporting system.
But commercial fishers, long accused of illegally fishing in municipal waters reserved for artisanal fishermen, brought the matter to court and managed to secure a restraining order that has since evolved into a permanent injunction.
To deter illegal fishing
Oceana Philippines, local representative of the global conservationist group, was among those that lobbied for the passage of vessel monitoring provisions in Philippine Fisheries Code.
“We waited for five years for the rules on vessel monitoring measures (VMMs) to apply to all commercial fishing vessels to be issued,” lawyer Gloria Estenzo-Ramos, vice president of Oceana said.
“We will not allow continuous neglect even as we know that our poor artisanal fisherfolk suffer because our fisheries resources are pillaged by the illegal intrusion of commercial fishing municipal waters.”
In an interview with Maritime Fairtrade, Ramos said the overfished waters of the Philippines can be attributed to the intrusions of commercial fishers in municipal waters reserved for artisanal fishermen.
Oceana launched an online platform for reporting illegal fishing Karagatan Patrol, and its 4,000 plus members are actively reporting incidents and most of them are violations committed by commercial fishers in municipal waters.
Ramos, however, said this provided an incomplete picture of the illegal commercial fishing problem as during the day, fishing vessels are not detected. It also does not provide important data such as vessel identity and information that can be used to apprehend and prosecute violators.
“These are the gaps that vessel monitoring measures can actually fill in when it comes to implementing fisheries laws in the Philippines,” Ramos said.
She stressed that RA 10654 was enacted to stop unregulated fishing and as a response to the yellow card warning imposed by the European Union in 2014 that government measures to fight illegal fishing were inadequate.
For Ramos, vessel monitoring measures can fill the gaps in fighting illegal fishing because it can provide information on commercial fishing vessel movements, location and identity that can be used to apprehend and prosecute violators.
“Vessel monitoring measures can help put an end to these illegal fishing activities and give back what is rightfully granted preferentially by law to municipal waters,” Ramos said.
Legal questions remain
But as the law required fishing vessels to comply with monitoring measures, it also required coordination with local government units but the BFAR has not indicated that it did so in crafting FAO 266. Also, there are new provisions that remain controversial and may take years for the Philippine judicial system to resolve.
The fact that a regional trial court issued a temporary restraining order despite prohibition against doing so in RA 10654, and that the court upgraded the restraining order to a permanent injunction, suggested that the court was aware of the legal issues.
The Philippine Supreme Court also did not act on a petition to review the local court’s decision to declare FAO 266 as “unconstitutional.”
The inherent legal controversies in RA 10654 may even have prevented then president Benigno Aquino III from signing RA 10654 and it only lapsed into law without the customary presidential signature.
Move to implement best practices on hold
Nonetheless, Ramos said the rules in FAO remained the best way to prevent illegal fishing and ensure an equitable distribution of Philippine natural resources.
“Oceana continues to call for the implementation of FAO 266 to ensure that commercial fishing vessel activities are monitored and illegal activities prosecuted,” Ramos insisted. “This is because FAO 266 also requires an electronic reporting system for commercial fishing vessels, enabling law enforcers to detect violators of the country’s fisheries laws.”
The vessel monitoring system can track and monitor the position, course, and speed of fishing vessels at any time. It also uses an automatic location communicator or a tracking device equipped with a distress alert button, which when activated can automatically determine where the vessel is and alert the authorities during accidents or any other emergencies.
In issuing FAO 266, the government appeared cognizant of the benefits of requiring a vessel monitoring system. It even considered implementing the order in areas outside of the jurisdiction of the regional trial court that issued the injunction.
But with only months before the expiration of the term of the Duterte administration, time is quickly running out. In February, the Philippine Solicitor General issued a legal opinion advising government agencies to simply comply with the court’s ruling on FAO 266.
“Given that the (court) made permanent the preliminary injunction issued by it, and unless the Supreme Court issues any injunctive writ to enjoin the enforcement of the same, the OSG is of the opinion that BFAR… should desist from implementing FAO 266,” Solicitor General Jose Calida said in the legal opinion.
Meanwhile, reforms in the fisheries sector will have to go on hold.
Reforms delayed again
Oceana said that RA 10654, if fully implemented, will not only protect the rights of artisanal fishermen, but also boost fish stocks which will also be beneficial to all stakeholders.
“Among the provisions of the fisheries code is the implementation of the ecosystems approach to fisheries management which seeks to rectify the lack of or mismanagement of our fisheries and fish stocks,” Ramos said.
“This would ensure that mechanisms to ensure sustainable fish stocks through harvest control rules and reference points are implemented plus enforcement of fisheries laws to stop illegal and overfishing in our waters.”
Ramos said the full implementation of the fisheries code, as amended by RA 10654, is long overdue and “we continue to call on the BFAR not to delay implementing the relevant provisions that were included in the law to ensure that illegal fishing is prevented, deterred and eliminated which is the essence of this law.”
“Instead, BFAR is promoting further exploitation of municipal waters through efforts that would allow commercial fishing, such as its proposal for the “Big Brother, Small Brother” partnership that encourage local government units to open their municipal waters to illegal fishing without the needed scientific basis or robust data to support it, given the current state of fish stocks in major fishing grounds,” she said.
Fisherman Ruperto Aleroza, head of the group Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Samahan sa Kanayunan, joined Oceana in appealing for full implementation of vessel monitoring measures.
“I would like to remind everyone that the sea gives us our livelihood and food. We need to take care of it, follow the law and implement vessel monitoring measures now,” he said in Tagalog.
According to Oceana, as of January this year, only about 50 percent of the 3,000 commercial fishing vessels have installed the transponders required by law.
Photo credit: iStock/ rweisswald