In the face of lockdowns, we need our fisheries more than ever before

Our fisheries play a vital role in the physical and economic health of our country. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources reported that for the year 2018, the sector contributed P214.869 billion to the economy and provided employment and livelihood for 1.8 million Filipinos. The average Filipino derives 22.5% of their annual food intake from fishery products – a quarter of their yearly diet. At the same time, however, we’re seeing a drop in local production, with the first quarter of 2020 posting a 3.2% drop in productivity compared to the first quarter of 2019. 

Our reliance on our fisheries demands that we take care of them and that we keep them productive – but the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to leave the sector in deep water. 

For a long time, our fisheries have been heavily dependent on exports. Markets across the region, in Europe, and in the United States have been major destinations for our exports. Throughout 2018 we exported a total of 464,248 metric tons of seafood with a total value of approximately 83 billion pesos, according to BFAR data. With the ongoing pandemic, however, high-value, international markets are starting to turn inwards, realizing that their reliance on traded fish isn’t wise given current events. 

We are also a country of imports. Data from BFAR shows that throughout 2018 alone, we imported 515,905 metric tons of seafood worth 373,356,000 pesos in total. As international trade slows, so too will these imports, depriving our countrymen of resources they have grown accustomed to, even dependent on, over the many years of robust international trade. 

With international markets becoming increasingly closed off, this poses a problem for the “New Normal” – dry markets and poorer fishers. As the markets dry up, fishers fish more to make up for their losses in the cheaper, local scene, putting our marine resources further at risk. 

We need to plug the growing holes in our local seafood supply chain. If we do not, then we risk further damage to the economy and to the sector, and many Filipinos risk decreases in what is a major part of their diet. This is why we need to build our domestic markets, and why we need to support sustainable fishing. 

The development of our domestic markets is a journey that must be done sustainably. Our country is already plagued with the effects of destructive, unsustainable industries. Dwindling fishery productivity is an indicator of this. The various damaged and destroyed fisheries throughout the country are damning evidence. If we don’t handle our fisheries with care, future generations will carry the burden of the damage we cause today. 

Fishermen lay their nets out on a beach in Bicol. Millions of people rely on Philippine fisheries for their income and livelihood. Photograph © Alo Lantin / WWF-Philippines

There are three stages we must look at in order to build sustainable, productive domestic markets for our fisheries: 

Firstly, we must protect our fisheries. Our coastal waters are the source of much of our fish resources, but mismanagement and unsustainable extraction have left many of them damaged. The fisheries themselves underpin the entire industry, and their loss would spell disaster for millions. Through effective tracing and monitoring of fishing activities, and with just and sufficient enforcement of fishery law to crack down on illegal activities, we can keep our oceans vibrant. 

Secondly, we need to build and support the livelihoods of our local fishermen. Many unsustainable fishery activities find their roots in a lack of livelihood security. A solution to low income, for example, is to harvest more fish, which can be harmful to the ecosystem in the long run. By expanding their incomes and livelihoods, we can keep fishers from causing damage to marine resources. We can do this by extending social protection measures to them and giving them access to technology that helps them reap the most benefit from their catches. We can also streamline the fisheries supply chain and make it preferential to our fishermen, so they are able to earn more off of each catch. We must put our local fishermen first and develop them into competitive providers to the Philippine economy. 

A woman sells fish in a roadside wet market in the province of Catanduanes. In the face of dwindling international trade brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, we will need our domestic fisheries more than ever before. Photograph © Alo Lantin / WWF- Philippines

And finally, we need to make sure that we, as consumers, are choosing Filipino fish. All the sustainability measures and livelihood development in the world will not mean anything if we don’t put our purchasing money into our fisheries. We must be willing, as well, to pay a premium for quality, sustainable fishery products, to keep our markets rich and to mitigate the risk of overfishing. In choosing local, sustainable fish, we can breathe life anew into this most important pillar of our economy. 

What’ll it take to build our domestic markets? Consumers, of course, need to choose locally-sourced fish, and fishers themselves, and those in the industry, need to adhere to fishery law and the principles of sustainable fishing. Most importantly, though, businesses and government agencies must provide the landscape to allow our fisheries to thrive. Only with everyone’s support can we breathe new life into our fisheries. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with challenges, unlike anything the modern-day Philippines has faced before. Our export-dependent fisheries risk losing millions of pesos, leaving an already- poor sector in dire straits. Meanwhile, our import-dependent markets risk large-scale decline, putting a strain on the resources that come into our country. Filipino diets are dependent on fish. Thus we are presented with a problem – but in this problem, there is an opportunity. 

If we turn towards local fisheries, we can cut back on our reliance on imports without suffering over our reliance on fish. If we choose to pay a premium for locally-sourced and sustainable fish, we can keep the sector vibrant even with less exportation. We can fill the growing gaps in our fisheries with our very own catches, at the benefit of our markets and the fishers themselves. We can learn to be self-reliant. We can bring ourselves back to prosperity. 

Besides, why shouldn’t we buy local fish? What’s happening now is that we’re getting low-quality fish, the catch that doesn’t meet international food safety standards – the rejects of high-quality markets. Is that what we deserve? Are we even going to accept that local fish be called “rejects,” and not the best of the best? Don’t we deserve export-quality fish at local prices, the best that our countrymen can offer, bought for the benefit of our very own fishers? We ought to be the ones to enjoy the bounties of our seas.

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