The Philippines agrees to address illegal fishing amid UN and scientists’ pressure

By Lester Wan

- Last updated on GMT

The Philippines has pledged to work under the agreements to combat illegal and over-fishing. ©GettyImages
The Philippines has pledged to work under the agreements to combat illegal and over-fishing. ©GettyImages
The Philippine government has acceded to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations’ (UN) agreements to combat illegal fishing and encourage environmental protection.

The fisheries sector in the Philippines is huge, with sardine fisheries being the main economic driver, netting 344,730,201kg worth Ps 7.43b in 2015.

However, the industry has been beset by illegal and over-fishing.

The country has now pledged to work under the International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas (known as the Compliance Agreement), the Agreement on Port State Measures to Combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IUUF), and five conventions of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on marine environmental protection, navigational safety and seafarer safety.

Improved measures

The Port State Measures (PSMs) are requirements of port states which demand the compliance of all foreign fishing vessels in return for the right to dock and use port facilities.

Some of these include the notification of port entry, the use of designated ports, restrictions on entry, landing and transshipment of seafood catches, restrictions on supplies or services, regular port inspections, and trade sanctions against IUUF.

PSMs have been proven to deter IUUF, making them strong tools to fight illegal fishers.

The implementation of these agreements will help the Philippines draw closer to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), especially SDG 14 which aims to conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

“This is an important step in better protecting our fisheries and our people who depend on a healthy and vibrant ocean for their livelihood and resources,”​ said Gloria Estenzo Ramos, vice-president of Oceana Philippines, an international advocacy organisation dedicated to ocean conservation.

Sardine watch

Recently, fisheries scientists have also been urging the Philippine government to address the over-fishing of sardines in its territories by putting in place a national framework.

“Sardines are being over-fished and existing policy measures are not enough to protect them,"​ said Dr Wilfredo Campos of the University of the Philippines in the Visayas.

He said existing data shows a decline in fish stocks due to heavy fishing pressure and environmental changes.

Furthermore, the studies show that sardines are getting smaller, and spawn and mature early.

“To keep up with being caught too quickly, they biologically adapt by maturing early to compensate for their population loss. They remain small, and spawn less compared to ideal, mature sardines,”​ said Dr Campos.

He said it would be more sustainable if they were allowed to mature for at least two years so that they can reproduce more.

Sardines are not just one of the most affordable sources of food for millions of Filipinos but are also crucial in the food chain, being consumed by high-value fish such as tuna, mackerel and scad, as well as larger predators such as sharks and dolphins.

Fishing closures

From 2012, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) ordered a closed season for sardines in major fishing grounds including the Visayan Sea and the Zamboanga Peninsula, to ensure they would be protected during spawning months from November to March.

The recent one was lifted on March 1.

According to Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, these closures have had positive impact.

“There was an increase from 2015 in the catch of Sardinella lemuru (tamban). The catch was 137,142.55 metric tonnes (MT). It increased to 143,060 MT in 2016 and in 2017, rose to 152,283 MT,” ​he said.

On the other hand, Dr Jose Ingles, an advisor to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in the Philippines, said that after the closed season, there’s often a “race to fish” for sardines, where commercial fishers may end up catching the juveniles which are expected to spawn next season.

“There should be other additional measures to protect the little fish that were produced during the spawning season. These include setting catch limits and reducing fishing efforts which will help protect the juvenile sardines, especially during the ‘race to fish’ season,”​ said Ingles.

He emphasised that that these measures must be urgently implemented in fishing grounds that are already over-fished.

“We need a participatory and science-based management framework for sardines. This will serve as a holistic guide in implementing the policies that will focus on the biological and socio-economic aspects of sardine management,”​ said Ingles.  

Jimely Flores, senior marine scientist of Oceana Philippines, agreed, adding there is a need for a management framework for sardines in order “to work together in sustainably managing our sardines through science-based policies”​.

Flores said it should include timely and transparent scientific data for policy support, and a review process for implementation. 

Recent boost

In the Tañon Strait in the Visayas, new resolutions tightening enforcement and monitoring by the Coastal Law Enforcement Alliance in Region 7 (CLEAR7) — a coordinated coastal law enforcement strategy involving government agencies and non-government organisations — will make illegal and destructive fishing more difficult.

A multi-agency task force will develop and implement an operation plan to minimise and eventually eradicate illegal fishing in the Strait as soon as the end of this year.

Although protected, the area known for whales and dolphins, with fishing as the major source of livelihood, is beset by problems — illegal fishing by commercial fishers, the continued use of dynamite, cyanide and fine mesh nets, pollution and unregulated coastal development.

“Illegal fishing is complex. It can only be addressed if all stakeholders work together,”​ said Lt. Carlo Madrid, the region’s Chief of Naval Civil Military Operations.

“We have deployed gunboats and will support any enforcement agencies including our Bantay Dagat (volunteer sea patrol) units within the Strait.”

We also recently reported blockchain technology is being introduced​ to combat illegal fishing of tuna in the Western and Central Pacific.

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