Studies show that sardines are getting smaller and spawn earlier to adapt to heavy fishing pressure and environmental changes. Fisheries scientists are urging the government to craft a national management framework to address the overfishing of sardines.
Dr. Wilfredo Campos, a scientist from the University of the Philippines in the Visayas said that existing data shows a decline in fish stocks due to heavy fishing pressure and environmental changes. “Sardines are being overfished and existing policy measures are not enough to protect them, especially spawning fish," Campos says.
Their studies show that sardines are getting smaller, and spawn and mature early. Campos said that catching sardines would be more sustainable if they are allowed to mature for at least two years, so they can reproduce more.
“To keep up with being caught too quickly, they biologically adapt by maturing early to compensate for their population loss. They remain small, and spawn less compared to ideal, mature sardines,” Campos added.
Sardine fisheries are a main economic driver in the Philippines, netting 344,730,201 kilograms worth Php 7.43 billion in 2015, which provides food and livelihood for millions of Filipinos. Sardines are also crucial in the food chain, eaten by high-value fish such as tuna, mackerel and scad, plus larger predators like sharks and dolphins.
A recent study made by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) also showed that 71% of typical Filipino families eat seafood, especially sardines, at least five times per month - proving that seafood is a significant source of animal protein diet. However, they also observed that the fish they eat are getting smaller and more expensive.
In 2012, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) ordered a closed season for sardines in major fishing grounds including the Visayan Sea and the Zamboanga Peninsula, to ensure that they will be protected during spawning months from November to March.
However, it’s also important to protect sardines after the spawning season. Dr. Jose Ingles, an advisor to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in the Philippines said that after the closed season, there’s often a “race to fish” for sardines, where commercial fishers may end up catching the juveniles which are expected to spawn next season.
“There should be other additional measures to protect the little fish that were produced during the spawning season. These include setting catch limits and reducing fishing efforts which will help protect the juvenile sardines, especially during the race to fish season,” Ingles says.
He also emphasized that that these measures must be urgently implemented in fishing grounds that are already overfished. Additional measures such as setting catch limits and reducing fishing effort can protect juvenile sardines, especially during the ‘race to fish’ season. Ingles says these measures must be urgently implemented in fishing grounds that are already overfished.
“We need a participatory and science-based management framework for sardines. This will serve as a holistic guide in implementing the policies that will focus on the biological and socio-economic aspects of sardine management,” Ingles adds.
Jimely Flores, senior marine scientist of Oceana Philippines, views the management framework for sardines as a necessary guide in the implementation of policies that are based on science and research, including data from the National Stock Assessment Program (NSAP) of BFAR.
“We have called on BFAR to reconvene the Technical Working Group (TWG), and together with our scientists, craft the much-needed management framework for sardines,” Flores says.
According to Flores, the management framework should include timely and transparent scientific data for policy support, and a review process for implementation.
“We need to work together in sustainably managing our sardines through science-based policies. This way, we can ensure that there will be sardines, a small but important fish, forever,” Flores says.
Sardines are among the most affordable sources of food for Filipinos. (Gregg Yan/Oceana)