COVID-19 and our ‘Blue Economy’
With water making up the bulk of Philippine territory—four-fifths, counting our exclusive economic zones as defined by the United Nations—why is very little of our gross domestic product contributed by our water-based economy (the “Blue Economy”)? Fisheries and water transport contribute a mere 1.5 percent of incomes in our economy, measured as GDP.
Adding water-based recreation, offshore natural gas and other miscellaneous economic activities based or dependent on our waters won’t bring the share much beyond that. And yet I’ve always maintained that a square kilometer of our inland or marine waters could well contain at least as much if not more potential economic wealth than a similar area of our undeveloped lands.
For many years, we’ve heard it argued that our development planning must be premised on our being an archipelagic economy. Still, our plans and public investment programs appear to have remained dominantly focused on our land-based resources. But it is well known that fishers, especially artisanal fishers along our coasts, have traditionally been among the nation’s poorest. Poverty incidence in the sector as of 2018 was 26.2 percent, against the national poverty incidence of 16.7 percent of Filipinos.
Already highly vulnerable as they are, how have workers in the sector been hit by the economic standstill caused by the lockdowns imposed to control spread of the virus? What stresses have our fishers and their families endured in the wake of the pandemic? They have shared a similar fate with counterparts overseas, but that is no consolation for those who are already among the most disadvantaged in our society. The livelihoods on which our coastal populations depend have been adversely impacted in various ways. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the international body overseeing and monitoring the food sector worldwide, has assessed COVID-19’s impacts on the fisheries sector, and makes several observations, which we sum up here.
Globally, the slump in overall international trade has similarly reduced trade in the products of the fishery sector, where 38 percent of total production enters world trade. The trade showdown had already been happening prior to the pandemic due to the US-China trade war, but took a turn for the worse as the coronavirus moved across national boundaries as well. Meanwhile, closure of the food service sectors—restaurants, hotels, food stalls, and other food service businesses—drastically impacted on supply chains for fresh fish and shellfish, which account for nearly half (45 percent) of all fish consumed. In some areas, these closures in restaurants and food service outlets shifted sales to fish retail establishments. There were some initial benefits to canned and preserved seafood products, which profited from panic buying early in the crisis. But overall reduction in consumer demand caused by reduced incomes of workers who found themselves without jobs in the economic freeze led to closures in the fish- and seafood-processing sector.
The logistics sector was also significantly hampered by the economic lockdowns, impacting on the movement of various fishery products, most prominently salmon and tuna, which are often transported by air over long distances. Also affected is the movement of seeds, feeds, vaccines, and other aquaculture-related items. This puts a double squeeze on the aquaculture sector, which, with reduced demand and falling prices, has had to contend with increased live fish stocks, hence raising their need for feeds and raising risk of mortalities as well. Capture fisheries, meanwhile, have been brought to a halt or significantly cut by the same reduced demands. The silver lining is that this helps renew and replenish stocks in fishing grounds.
How the COVID crisis may impel us to pursue a “bluer new normal” is the subject of an ongoing three-part webinar series by the USAID Fish Right Program (check out https://www.facebook.com/kumustamangingisda/ to know more). It’s time we all realized that there’s so much more wealth in our midst than we have perhaps cared to know, appreciate, and defend from intruders.
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