An archipelago nation consisting of more than 7000 individual islands and 300,000 sq km of territory, the Philippines has by necessity developed a strong maritime culture over its history. As such, the fisheries sector has evolved from largely a subsistence practice in its early years – supplying inhabitants with a crucial source of protein – to today’s diversified, modern industry, which features a deep-sea fishing fleet, ocean-based mariculture, inland aquaculture industries and near-shore pelagic fisheries.
The fisheries sector turned out P238.4bn ($5.04bn) worth of production in 2015, down slightly from P241.9bn ($5.12bn) the previous year and up from P144.6bn ($3.06bn) in 2013, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority.
Of the major species of fish pursued by the Philippine fishing fleet, output of roundscad, skipjack, milkfish and tilapia fell in 2015, registering drops of 11.9%, 2.6%, 2.3% and 0.5%, respectively.
Some of these declines are the result of government-imposed fish stock management practices designed to preserve the long-term viability of the sector at the expense of some short-term gains. Although many local fishermen, particularly those operating in small and medium-sized vessels, voiced strong displeasure with such regulations, the positive results of these early efforts have begun to win over the fleet. Timed closures have been put in place in recent years in the Sulu Sea and the Basilan Strait, as well as in the Visayan Sea and its surrounding waters.
One of the more significant changes to affect the sector recently are the amendments to the nation’s Fisheries Code, and the subsequent implementing rules and regulations which were signed in September 2015.
The changes to the code, which were drawn up with minimal input from the private sector, have resulted in a much more rigid enforcement system, which has given rise to new challenges for the commercial fleets, in particular.
The amended code has the potential to significantly restrict fishing operations in the country if implemented to the letter, Augusto Natividad, senior vice-president of Frabelle Fishing Corporation, told OBG. The restrictions include strict delineation of municipal and commercial fisheries, based on lineal distances, rather than on fish behaviour and habitat.
Other actions are designed to bolster enforcement, such as an expansion in monitoring via mandatory vessel observation measures installed on every fishing boat. These measures apply to all Philippine-flagged commercial fishing vessels operating outside of the country’s waters, as well as to commercial fishing vessels of 30 gross tonnes and above operating in Philippine waters.
There is also a grey area in terms of how municipal water is defined, as the country’s previous fishery laws classified municipal waters as extending 15 km from the mainland, while new laws from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources now classify the zone as covering up to 15 km out from the farthest island.
If the new classification is followed it will effectively make it illegal to fish on vast expanses of commercial fishing grounds, rendering them largely inoperative. With most of the smaller artisanal fishermen working closer in and pelagic fisheries not extending out past 30 metres in depth, a substantial area of productive fishing area may now be off-limits for larger commercial vessels but too far from shore to be feasibly fished by smaller operations.
The penalties for breaking these new laws will also be substantially more severe, with the fines for some infractions spiking exponentially from P10,000 ($212) per violation to over P1m ($21,200), with not only the captain and crew subject to penalisation but the owner of the offending vessel as well.
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