As darkness creeps in, the coastal waters surrounding the off-grid island of Calibangbangan become aglow with blinding lights. For the fishermen who’ve lived in this sleepy community about 400 kilometres (250 miles) south of Manila all their lives, this dazzling vista signals not celebration but despair.
Terso Languyod Jr., 38, says this unwelcome nightly display casts a literal light on the pervasive problem of illegal commercial fishing in municipal waters here and elsewhere in the Philippines. Languyod is one of the country’s 928,000 small-scale fishermen who have seen their catches shrinking due to the ravages of illegal commercial fleets, which can remove tonnes upon tons of fish in a single night from these highly productive areas.
Calibangbangan is one of several islands that make up the municipality of Linapacan, one of the Philippines’ most biodiverse marine areas. Languyod says the presence of domestic industrial fishing vessels scouring coastal fishing grounds here have increased over the years and even intensified during the pandemic.
Conservation-focused NGO Oceana runs a monitoring unit called Karagatan Patrol that tracks the presence of commercial fleets within what’s known in the Philippines as municipal waters: an area that extends 15 km (9 mi) from the coast, and where only small-scale local fishers can legally operate.
Languyod’s hometown has been on the Karagatan Patrol’s list of areas with the greatest number of commercial fishing vessels inside municipal waters since 2018. In 2020, commercial fishing vessels were detected 959 times in Linapacan, putting it ninth nationwide for breaches of its municipal waters. In the first quarter of 2021, there were 166 detections.
These commercial boats coming from other regions of the Philippines turn on what’s known in the trade as superlights from early evening up to the next morning to attract marine life, primarily Bartsch’s squid (Uroteuthis bartschi), locally called pusit bolpen, which the area is famous for.
“When they [illegal vessels] congregate [at night], they appear like a glowing island village,” Languyod tells Mongabay. “And for us, it means we’ll have fewer and fewer squid and fish to catch in the days ahead because they use fine-meshed nets that catch even the juveniles, which prevents squid and fish from maturing and breeding.”
Enforcing those policies across the 266,000 square kilometres (102,700 square miles) of coastal waters throughout the Philippines, however, remains a herculean task for authorities challenged by limited resources and personnel.
Reports say 70 per cent of the Philippines’ fish stocks are considered overfished, resulting in the critical decline of both domestic commercial and municipal fisheries production since 2010. Local authorities’ failure to regulate and monitor coastal fisheries is seen to be a major contributor to the country’s deteriorating fisheries health.
As fish stocks continue to dwindle, activists and policymakers are pinning their hopes on recent regulations that aim to improve the management of municipal waters.
A new management tool
In 2019, the Philippine government overhauled its fisheries policies, attempting to address illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing through a new fisheries management areas (FMA) framework.
Under this strategy, Philippine water bodies have been delineated into 12 FMAs, mapped out in accordance with the distribution of various fish populations rather than according to administrative boundaries. Through a management board responsible for creating and implementing management and enforcement plans, the new system aims to improve governance of each area at an ecosystem-wide scale to curb the illegal fishing trade.
Recent research by USAID and the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) shows the country is losing 62 billion pesos ($1.3 billion) annually to IUU fishing. The study, the first in the country to quantify IUU fishing, indicates that at least 30,000 municipal fishing vessels, or 30 per cent of the national fleet, are unregistered and that commercial fishers do not report up to 422,000 metric tonnes of fish catch each year.
The amount that the Philippines loses to illegal fishing raises concerns about enforcement. While the BFAR handles the challenging task of policing territorial waters, municipal waters are left to local governments, which often struggle with a lack of resources. The new system is a middle ground, experts say, as it allows local governments to pool resources and expertise.
Pure enforcement will require a lot of investment. It’s very expensive: you need a team, you need a high number of enforcers, equipment, training, and so on.
Nygiel Armada, chief of party, USAID Fish Right
Under the FMA’s implementing rules, each management board will be led by the regional BFAR office and local governments. The BFAR says the FMA system “can facilitate harmonised enforcement functions of all enforcement bodies,” and through the publication of more scientific information about key fish species drawn in a particular FMA, “enforcement can be more purposive and targeted.”
Philippine enforcement authorities have been criticised for operating on their own and rarely talking to each other, resulting in slow responses to reports of illegal fishing, which allows perpetrators to evade arrest at sea. “Their work almost wasn’t harmonised … now they are slowly doing some [coordination efforts], but it still needs improvement,” marine scientist Nygiel Armada tells Mongabay.
Armada, chief of the ongoing USAID Fish Right project, says he’s optimistic that this new strategy can make a dent in the fight against IUU fishing in the Calamianes island group of Palawan province, where Linacapan is located. Calamianes falls under FMA 5, which covers the whole western border of Palawan. “With FMA, you can concentrate your enforcement efforts,” Armada says, adding that USAID has been providing technical support to the BFAR as the agency mainstreams the framework.
The project particularly emphasises increasing compliance of both small and large fishers with laws and regulations, and improving the violation reporting system, which Armada says was lacking in the past.
“Pure enforcement will require a lot of investment. It’s very expensive: you need a team, you need a high number of enforcers, equipment, training, and so on. And still in the past 10 years, nothing has really happened; nothing really has moved if we just focus on enforcement,” he says.
Oceana Philippines chief Gloria Ramos calls the FMA system “another significant milestone in addressing illegal fishing and mainstreaming science-based management of fisheries in the Philippines.” “This means even if Linapacan [municipal government] is not or cannot address illegal fishing in their municipal waters, this will be addressed through the FMA management board once mechanisms, such as the management and enforcement plans are in place,” she tells Mongabay.
Getting it off the ground
To get the FMA system running, clustered areas need to know the basics: the status of the seascape, the marine resources there, and how much of the waters are overfished. Knowing these factors could help managers set parameters, including the total allowable fish catch, and impose interventions to ensure the sustainability of the marine resources.
One major hurdle, Armada says, is the lack of a clear mechanism by which violations can be reported to, and dealt with, by the authorities. “I think reporting is the Achilles’ heel in all of this process,” he says. “If there’s no reporting, anything that we put as an investment is just really a waste of money.”
The BFAR and USAID Fish Right recently launched the Philippine IUU Fishing Index and Threat Assessment Toolkit, or I-FIT. Using this set of tools, fisheries managers alongside community members conduct an in-depth evaluation of IUU fishing prevalence and magnitude within their localities, through a series of workshops and other participatory activities.
Results will then be used to identify hits and misses in enforcement efforts and generate corresponding standardised scores. In turn, this will guide the coastal law enforcement authorities and community members in devising purposeful, targeted and effective responses against IUU fishing within municipal waters, and later within the FMAs and national waters in a given period.
The data from that system can specifically support the FMA management board in crafting science-based site- and stock-specific harvest control rules and measures, Armada says. Such measures could include imposing seasonal closures, tighter regulations on allowable fishing equipment, and caps on license issuances, to keep stocks and yields at sustainable levels. Additionally, the rules, based on models derived from scientific data like fish catch and stocks and biomass, tell the managers what to do when indicators of fishery health fall below the target.
The pandemic, however, has slowed down the FMA system rollout as only six out of 12 areas have been able to create their own scientific advisory groups to guide management boards in crafting plans. “In general, convening the management board posed a great challenge across the 12 FMAs due to restrictions in movement brought by the pandemic, thus delaying the groundwork needed such as popularising the concept of FMAs and getting the stakeholders to buy in,” says BFAR.
The agency says unstable internet connection also hinders some stakeholders from fully participating in the virtual meetings convened by the BFAR’s regional offices. For some FMAs, local mayors’ lack of full commitment to attend FMA meetings and other activities is another challenge. Currently, 11 out of 12 FMAs have been created, but until now, there’s no designated regular fund for FMA operations.
Supporters of the FMA system say it could potentially ease existing fish competition at sea between small and medium-to-large-scale players.
Armada says the FMA system could set a sustainable number of fishing players, and could even permit the entry of domestic commercial vessels in the municipal waters, albeit only limited numbers in specific areas identified scientifically, following a series of negotiations with stakeholders.
This is what USAID has recommended in Calamianes, particularly in the municipality of Linapacan, to address the competition between small and medium-to-large-scale players while gradually helping fish stocks rebound.
In most of the fishing grounds, which are largely overfished, there is no compelling reason to expand the operations of small and medium commercial fishing vessels to more areas of municipal waters than what is stated as an exception under the law.
Gloria Ramos, chief, Oceana Philippines
“Those [boats] registered in a particular FMA are the only ones allowed to fish there. Because of that, you can [now] make effective interventions,” Armada says. “The commercial [fishers] themselves will know their number and limitation, as well as the municipal [fishers] because they are now limited to a smaller space and have a good chance talking to each other.”
But Oceana Philippines, along with other civil society groups, local governments and academics, are still not open to the idea of allowing domestic commercial fishing in municipal waters. Currently, the crux of debate is centered on House Bill 7853 that seeks to amend the Philippine Fisheries Code to legalise such activity, in line with what USAID has recommended for Linapacan.
In a manifesto signed by more than 1,100 fisherfolk groups nationwide, they say such coexistence with commercial operators in these highly productive yet beleaguered areas is impossible as it would only exacerbate the long-running rift between the two sectors, with subsistence fishers ending up on the losing end.
“Allowing commercial fishers in municipal waters would worsen the exploitation of our fisheries. This bill would unfairly displace our artisanal fisherfolk who depend on municipal waters for their food and livelihood,” the manifesto reads.
Oceana’s Ramos says HB 7853 undermines the FMA system as it fails to consider the different situations in each area. “In most of the fishing grounds, which are largely overfished, there is no compelling reason to expand the operations of small and medium commercial fishing vessels to more areas of municipal waters than what is stated as an exception under the law,” she says. “Expanding more fishing grounds in municipal waters for potential operations of commercial fishers would run counter to the FMA system.”
While HB 7853 is up for deliberation in Congress, artisanal fishermen like Languyod are already experiencing displacement. In recent years, he says, his group always retreated every time they saw purse seine fishing vessels crowding and anchoring in a spot they also frequented. “We’re fuming. But we can’t do something about it. What if they will ram us? So we moved out into a safe fishing ground,” he says.
Since the entry of these unwelcome visitors with little to no deterrence, patsamba-tsamba or “by chance” is how he describes the times he caught pusit bolpen squid over the past few years. Now, Languyod says he has to go out as early as 3 a.m. to return home with a catch just enough to survive a day. Among the fish species they usually chance upon are kanuping (orange-striped emperor, Lethrinus obsoletus), tanigue (chub mackerel, Scomber japonicus), matang-baka (big-eye scad, Selar crumenophthalmus), and molmol (parrotfish, subfamily Scarinae). On average, he usually gets around 5 kilogrammes (11 pounds) that he can sell for 250 pesos ($5) — an income much lower than the national daily wage, which makes artisanal fisher the second-poorest occupation in the country after farmers.
“Sometimes, you’ll go home with nothing,” says Languyod, a father of two and husband to a daycare teacher. This wasn’t the case before, when at any time of the day he could catch up to 10 kg (22 lb) of pusit bolpen by going no further than a mile offshore for an hour.
“For a bigger family with no other income source, that’s not enough,” Languyod says. And even if they want to diversify their livelihoods to afford their families a better life, there are no other options available on the island than fishing. This underscores how vital the coastal seas are to the community’s survival, with its depletion effectively being their death sentence.
“Fishing is our lifeblood here. Without fish, we’ll sell nothing, we’ll eat nothing,” Languyod says. “Without fish, we’ll go hungry, we’ll vanish.”
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.