Editorial: Sustain local fishers

SAVE THE FISHERS. Public and private stakeholders advocate that illegal, unreported and unregulated challenges are addressed through a range of interventions, from the cultural to the institutional. / SUNSTAR FILE
SAVE THE FISHERS. Public and private stakeholders advocate that illegal, unreported and unregulated challenges are addressed through a range of interventions, from the cultural to the institutional. / SUNSTAR FILE

Among Christians keeping the Lenten tradition to fast and abstain from meat and other indulgences, “Semana Santa (Holy Week)” means putting the spotlight on fish and other seafood on the dining table.

This Lenten demand has always pushed the prices of fish and seafood, which benefits fishing communities, entrepreneurs and even consumers who view fish-based diets as not just conforming with religious belief but also prioritizing good nutrition and wellness.

It is worth noting that the recent observance of Lent by this predominantly Catholic nation is marked by a gradual but distinct shift: even though the demand for fish and seafood still peaks during Holy Week, the discrepancy between high Lenten market demand and dwindling supply and quality of fish and seafood widens with the years.

At Opon, Jun and Malou raise their family for nearly four decades on profits from Jun’s daily fish catch. Even when he was just fishing off the waters surrounding Mactan, Jun’s catch was guaranteed to sell out among Malou’s regular buyers before 4 p.m.

A seasoned vendor of fish, shellfish and seaweeds at the Sa-ac wet market, Malou now finds herself apologizing that her prices have increased or she is unable to accept a buyer’s attempt to haggle.

She says Jun has to increasingly stray from the artisanal waters off Mactan and venture near Bohol to be assured of fish catch that has yet to surpass the bounty of the past. His inability to catch prime fish species, such as Lapu-Lapu or tanguigue, whose prices are driven up by restaurants and hotels, means she has to rely on small fish stocks she can dispose among her regular buyers at Sa-ac.

Resident Marian says that the diversity and quality of seafood she can purchase at the wet markets of Sa-ac and Bankal has declined but the steep prices have made fish, squid, shrimp and crab more “untouchable” than pork and beef. When a kilo of sardines hovers around P200, Marian will opt for chicken.

Malou jokes that their family has not tasted in a while the fish catch of Jun. Fish, with its health benefits, is on its way out of the plates of the men and women who sustain one of the world’s top producers in fisheries and aquaculture.

In 2019, the Philippines was ranked by the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (Seafdec) as 10th globally for capture fishery production and 11th in aquaculture production.

Problems in the fishery industry are not unknown in a country located in the center of marine biodiversity, such as “nearly 60 percent of the world’s known fishes as well as over 600 species of corals,” as evaluated by specialists quoted by the Seafdec in its fisheries country profile of the Philippines in 2022.

Environment and traditions intermingle to create Filipinos’ rich culture of fish- and seafood-based dishes. Seafdec profiles that the average Filipino consumes an “average of 34.27 kg/year of fish and fishery products comprising 23.36 kg of fresh fish, 2.85 kg of dried fish, 4.97 kg of processed fish and 3.10 kg of crustaceans and mollusks.”

With such demand assuring that fish will remain a staple of Filipinos, the country’s community of artisanal fishers — estimated as 1.99 million fishers and 0.35 million fish farmers in 2019 — should be among the better-off, thriving Filipinos.

Fishers in the country remain marginalized. Filipino diners increasingly find fish as exotic, remote stars of restaurant and hotel menus.

The problem is, despite the existence of laws protecting the fisheries sector (composed of commercial fisheries, municipal fisheries and aquaculture), the Philippines struggles with a global catastrophe: illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

The significance of returning fish and seafood into the Filipino diet should not just be viewed in the light of a religious or culinary agenda.

The welfare and security of Filipino communities depending on fishing are paramount motivations in addressing IUU fishing concerns.


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