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No Free Lunch

Watch how we fish

You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” goes a popular saying in management circles. For our country’s fisheries, this can be a particularly dangerous thing. There is growing recognition that the “blue economy” — the resources, goods, and services associated with our marine and coastal resources and inland waters — merits far more attention. This is particularly true in an archipelagic country like ours, where a mere one-fifth of our territory is land, and about four-fifths is water, with all the resources it contains. But every year, a substantial portion of our economy’s fisheries output is illegally extracted, or goes unreported and unregulated.

Hard data is extremely difficult to obtain, but based on conservative consensus estimates obtained through the USAID Fish Right program, the amount of illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing in the Philippines is so high as to be alarming. Illegal fishing by both commercial and municipal fishers was valued at up to P63 billion in 2019, or up to 40 percent of capture fisheries production. The unreported catch of commercial fishers is placed at a range of 274,000 to 422,000 metric tons per year, and unregistered fishing vessels are estimated to range from a third to nearly half of the number registered with the government. Globally, IUU fishing is estimated to represent up to 26 million tons of annual fish catch, valued at up to $23 billion. All told, so much of our own fishery resources escape the eyes of those tasked to ensure that they are managed in a way that benefits the greatest number of Filipinos, including in generations yet to come.

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So why should we be alarmed? Can’t one argue that like the informal economy in general, these activities, while done “under the radar,” provide jobs and livelihoods, and thus help those engaged in it become better off? This can particularly be argued at least for the “UU” part, as one cannot properly condone acts that are illegal. It has long been acknowledged, after all, that around 40 percent of the Philippine economy is accounted for by the informal sector, also known as the underground economy. In the context of fisheries, however, IUU fishing inflicts genuine harm, some of it potentially irreparable. There are at least three major ways that we are hurt.

First, it especially hurts the poorest of our fisherfolk (who are consistently identified to be among the poorest of the Filipino poor), especially those who faithfully abide by the rules. Illegal or unreported fish catch reduces available fish for legitimate fishers, and at worst, could lead to the collapse of local fisheries. It also represents unfair competition to them, as the fish are caught without paying the usual fees and taxes paid by legitimate fishers. The effect is to unduly depress market prices to the disadvantage of compliant fishers, and it could also lower the overall quality of fishery products available. Further indirect impacts would be loss of income and employment in related industries, with reduced consumer spending by fishing families. In general, IUU fishing diminishes an important food source for dependent coastal communities, especially in our country where fish is the largest source of protein for the people.

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Second, IUU fishing undermines proper management of our fisheries activities, as it compromises the accuracy of official fish catch and stock estimates needed in setting catch limits to properly manage fish populations. In short, it’s extremely difficult to manage fisheries effectively where IUU fishing is happening.

Third, illegal fishing can cause serious environmental damage, especially when vessels use prohibited gear that catch nontarget species such as turtles, sharks, or dolphins, or physically damage or destroy reefs and other vulnerable marine ecosystems. By removing or reducing key species, the whole ocean ecosystem is impacted, with potentially severe disruptions to the ocean food chain, the harmful effects of which we would only feel years into the future.

All told, IUU fishing threatens livelihoods, worsens poverty, and compromises food security now and for generations yet to come. Clearly, they need to be stopped.

[email protected]

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, Fishing, Illegal fishing, No Free Lunch
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