“In the Philippines, where two-thirds of the fishing grounds are overfished and overexploited, a collapsed fishery is too much of a cost.”
Atty. Gloria Estenzo Ramos, Oceana Vice President warned during the recent World Ocean Summit – Asia Pacific (‘Summit’) that Philippine fisheries are already on the verge of collapse, due to its weak implementation of vessel monitoring measures and other reforms.
“Catchability, traceability, and post-harvest facilities are something that really have to be addressed. There is a lot of food wastage because there’s no ice storage for the small-scale fisherfolk and in a country like ours where hunger pervades, food wastage is like a mortal sin. We are collaborating with government to make sure these are addressed seriously,” she said during the recent World Ocean Summit Asia-Pacific’s panel discussion on tools for trust and transparency.
Organized by The Economist, the World Ocean Summit Asia-Pacific has been gathering experts since 2012 to discuss pressing concerns for the ocean, climate change, and the worsening state of the region’s biodiversity. This year, it convened 126 speakers and more than 2,000 participants over five days for virtual sessions covering the ongoing challenges in ensuring the sustainable management of marine resources.
Discussing the state of Philippine fisheries with moderator Francois Mosnier, head of Planet Tracker’s oceans team, and fellow panelists Martin Exel, managing director of SeaBOS, and Alistair Douglas, founder of Eachmile Technologies, Ramos shared that for the Philippines, “much has to be done. When you were talking about catchability, traceability, my feelings are that we’re just starting.”
“Reforms have been made and I’m very thankful that we are on the way there. It took a yellow card warning from the EU (European Union) to compel our government to instill the necessary reforms, and one of this is the requirement of vessel monitoring for all commercial fishing vessels in our country,” the Oceana executive added.
Ramos was referring to the issuance of a yellow card by the EU to the Philippine government in 2014 due to its failure to curb Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing (IUUF). While this was lifted in 2015 in recognition of the steps the country took to address IUUF, Ramos pointed out that so much still has to be done to aid in the recovery of the country’s fisheries.
“The Fisheries Code, as amended, required vessel monitoring but it took quite some time for government agencies to do it. So, what we did was pilot test vessel monitoring to show that it worked, and we were able to convince decisionmakers in the regions, at the local level, but at the national level there was hesitancy. They still couldn’t come up with the rules,” said Ramos.
“We had to go to court to compel the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to issue the regulations for vessel monitoring. In October last year during the COVID pandemic, Secretary William Dar of the Department of Agriculture (DA) issued the much-awaited regulations for vessel monitoring for all commercial fishing vessels. But the journey continues, we have to ask: What is the compliance rate for the commercial fishing vessels – are they in compliance?” asked Ramos.
Even outside of the Philippines, there are still many challenges faced in ensuring traceability and transparency out in the ocean. Douglas raised that one of the greatest challenges is that lack of desire for transparency, and the middlemen not wanting to be circumvented.
In response, Ramos said that it is important for the voices of fisherfolk to be heard as they are at the mercy of the middlemen, and they need to sell their produce.
“They don’t have much, they don’t even want much; they just want to have enough for their families. But right now, they are at the mercy of the brokers. We have to do something about it, and as mentioned, inclusiveness is important. They have to be part of the decision-making process.”
One integral component shaping up today is the stronger voices of small-scale fishermen who now demand accountability from the government. Ramos pointed out how they should be involved in the decision-making process under the Fisheries Management Areas (FMAs) system established in 2019. “The Fisheries Management Areas are science-based, transparent, and participatory. Our fisherfolk are made part of the management bodies.”
“The Philippines is considered the center of the center of marine biodiversity in the entire world, yet the wealth has not cascaded to our small-scale fishers. I’m so glad that under this pandemic, they have adopted the technology and now we can reach out to them through digital technology. Now government has to work double time in their efforts because empowered fisherfolk are demanding why all of these measures are not being addressed,” Ramos emphasized.
She shared how fisherfolk are able to collaborate with law enforcers with the use of Karagatan Patrol, a boat detection platform developed by Oceana, together with the League of Municipalities of the Philippines. The system uses Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) satellite technology to detect super lights – strong lure lights used by commercial fishing vessels to attract fish at night. These are prohibited by the law and worse, they do these within municipal waters where commercial fishing is not allowed.
Karagatan Patrol can only detect apparent intrusions at night given the technology it uses, so an online community was also established where both fisherfolk, fish wardens, and law enforcers are able to collaborate towards the apprehension of violators they spot out at sea. But Ramos stresses the need to properly implement vessel monitoring measures on all commercial fishing vessels.
“Never ever underestimate the power of communities. They make change happen and government has to listen – has no choice but to listen, and that’s exactly what’s happening, I’d like to believe, in our country,” said Ramos.
“Amidst all of the challenges, but now with stronger voices from various sectors working together, especially on ensuring stricter monitoring, control, and surveillance, science-based management under the Rule of Law would be welcomed even by private investors because they would like to be in places where there’s stability, predictability, and definitely we can all work together. After all, we only have one ocean, and we need each other. We have to do that,” she added.
Ramos commends the recently concluded Summit for effectively bringing together the key stakeholders in ocean governance in the Asia-Pacific region. “We can easily identify the similarities in the challenges faced by communities in various countries and deeply appreciate the learning and sharing of best practices by the speakers and participants as well. The focus on concrete actions to respond to climate change and solutions to the fisheries and biodiversity crisis should already trigger much-needed action especially by duty-holders. We would like to see continuing collaboration taking place in the weeks to come.