Fish and sea creatures | Inquirer Opinion
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Fish and sea creatures

If you’re walking or driving down Manila’s streets this morning and find yourself in the midst of sea creatures—turtles, fish, crabs, squids, dolphins and maybe even a mermaid or merman (what we call siokoy)—don’t be alarmed. Along with many other supporters in human form, they are simply marching, from the University of Santo Tomas to Malacañang, to observe National Fisherfolks Day and deliver to P-Noy’s doorstep a document called “Roadmap to Recovery for Philippine Oceans.”

The Roadmap, a blueprint developed by groups like the Save the Fisheries, Now! and the Roadmap to Recovery Network, in consultation with hundreds of fishers, lays out plans for the government, private sector, fishers, and the public to work together to save our seas and help our fishers and sea creatures affected by illegal and unsustainable fishing practices.

“Our seas are a war zone,” comments Mark Dia, regional oceans campaign manager of Greenpeace Southeast Asia. Fishers’ networks and the scientific community have long been in agreement that Philippine seas are in crisis, says Dinna Umengan of the nongovernment organization Tambuyog Development Center.

The crisis has been caused by many factors, in particular the competing and contradictory interests of big fishing firms, small fishers and fishing communities, consumers, fishpond owners and developers, local and national officials, and various government agencies.

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As if the number of players were not large enough, we also need to throw into the mix foreign fishers (specifically Chinese) exploiting our marine resources, which involves foreign policy and state security.

As the groups behind the Roadmap state: “[This] constitutes a resounding call for the national leadership to convene a crisis team that will formulate and implement the changes needed to ensure healthy seas and sustainable fisheries.”

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INCLUDED in this call, says Umengan, is the creation of a proposed “Department of Oceans and Fisheries” that will address all the concerns regarding fisheries policy, resource accessibility and control, environmental protection and sustainability and renewal of resources.

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At the moment, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources of the Department of Agriculture creates policy covering fishing and exploitation of sea resources; the Environmental Management Bureau under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources oversees the protection and conservation of ocean resources; the Coast Guard has responsibility for policing our waters; and local governments have jurisdiction over municipal waters.

“As you can see,” observes Umengan, “there are lots of overlap,” with no one agency exercising ultimate responsibility. “It’s time we brought an end to pointing fingers.”

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After conducting a legislative forum some days back, Umengan and Greenpeace campaigners Dia and Vince Cinches (oceans campaigner for Southeast Asia) say they sense growing support for the measure. “Surprisingly,” adds Umengan, “Agriculture did not raise serious objections, when you’d expect them to try to protect and preserve their turf.”

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PERHAPS Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala is aware of the dire state of our fishing industry.

Cinches cites the tuna fishing fleets that once operated in the waters of GenSan and Saranggani, and even Davao.

Today, he says, the biggest Filipino fishing concerns have moved their operations to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, since the tuna catch in local waters has dwindled considerably even as the number of fishing vessels has increased. While canning factories continue to operate, says Cinches, “none is operating at full capacity,” with most rotating workers in irregular shifts. And since the majority of canning factory workers are women, many of them migrants from other parts of the country, this has meant drastically reduced income and straitened circumstances for them and their families.

Women in the fishing sector, add Umengan and Ariane Jaraplasan, advocacy officer of the group NGOs for Fisheries Reform, play crucial but oft-ignored roles. “They are invisible,” says Umengan. While the men fishers go out to sea, it is the women who prepare the nets to be used and prepare the food the men bring with them. When the boats arrive with their catch, it’s the women who are responsible for “drying, sorting and selling” the catch.

But with fish and aquatic resources dwindling due to overfishing, environmental neglect (mine tailings end up in the ocean, destroying coral beds) and heated competition, there is less and less to go around.

And so, while fisherfolk constitute the “poorest of the poor” sectors in the country, women fisherfolk are the true “poorest of the poor” Filipinos.

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“IF we must ask who is most accountable for the poor state of our oceans and fishing

communities, to my mind it is the big fishing concerns,” notes Cinches.

He cites studies that show how “one night’s catch for a big commercial fishing vessel is equivalent to three months’ catch of small fishing boats.”

At the same time, “critical habitats are neglected,” says Jaraplasan, citing the difficulties involved in replanting or rehabilitating mangroves, most of which were laid to waste in the name of development. The trouble is that a lot of “abandoned, underutilized and undeveloped” property has been titled to private individuals or even local officials. Also problematic, she adds, is the well-intentioned but unscientific choice of replanting sites and species.

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The problem with our oceans and resources, then, is far from simple and involves contending parties. But it is not unsolvable, and if the “sea creatures” marching today are heeded, it’s better to act now and at once than to sit on our hands, complaining how difficult the problems are.

TAGS: Greenpeace Southeast Asia, malacanang, MANILA, President Aquino, University of Santo Tomas

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