THE fish population in the Visayan Sea, one of the country’s major fishing grounds, has been exploited 70 percent beyond its capacity to replenish, threatening not just the livelihood of thousands of fisherfolk but also the country’s food security.

National Stock Assessment Program (NSAP) Visayan Sea project leader Prudencio Belga Jr. said the exploitation rate of commercial fisheries in the area has surpassed the exploration ratio of 50 percent, the threshold at which commercial dominant marine fish stock can recoup from natural deaths and death by fishing.

“This is alarming. We are exploiting our fish stock beyond its capacity to replenish,” he said.

In Central Visayas (Region 7), fish is the main source of cheap animal protein, since prices of poultry and meat are more prohibitive.

Fisherman catches young redtail scad
CATCH TOO YOUNG. A trisikad driver prepares to leave the Pasil Fish Port in Cebu City with a tub of redtail scad that, judging from their size, are still too young to be caught. Redtail scad grow to about 17 inches for males and 11 inches for females. Catching the juvenile fish prevents fish from reaching maturity and reproducing, threatening the fish supply.(Sun.Star Cebu photo/Amper Campaña)

Fishing also provides livelihood for many families living below the poverty line.

This means when overfishing cuts the fish supply, the health and incomes of the poorest communities will suffer, according to “The Fisheries of Central Visayas, Philippines: Status and Trends,” the 2004 publication of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (Bfar) and the Department of

Environment and Natural Resources’ Coastal Resource Management Project (CRMP).

It said poor families already suffered when fish prices rose “1,400 percent” from 1977 to 2003 because fish catch declined despite the significant increase in fishing effort

in the region.

Ahead of World Oceans Day on June 8, Sun.Star Cebu explores in this three-part special report the harm caused by overfishing in the Visayas, and the challenges faced by those seeking to protect marine resources from overexploitation.


The 10,000-square-kilometer Visayan Sea is bounded by Masbate in the north, Cebu in the southeast, Negros in the south and Panay in the west. It is shared by 22 municipalities in four provinces: Masbate (in Region 5), Iloilo and Negros Occidental (Region 6) and Cebu (Region 7).

In 1995, the Bfar’s NSAP said, the Visayan Sea “ranked third in the commercial fisheries sector with 13.46 percent contribution (equivalent to 120,000 metric tons) to the country’s total fish harvest, and first in the municipal sector with a share of 11.28 percent (89,000 metric tons).”

But by 2005, NSAP figures (from Regions 6 and 7) showed landed catch for commercial fishery in the Visayan Sea plummeting to 30,251 mt, then to 19,089 mt by 2011. For municipal fishery, NSAP figures (Regions 5, 6 and 7) showed a 98 percent drop in landed catch to 1,605 mt by 2011.

In just seven years, municipal fishermen saw their catch nearly halve from 92.67 kilograms per day in 2004 (measured as catch per unit effort) to 50.29 kg/day by 2011.

From 1,117 kg/day in 2004, commercial fishing operators’ catch dove to 661 kg/day in 2011.

Freddie Baguio, 40, president of the Panaghugpong sa Day-asanong Mananagat in Barangay Day-as, Cordova town, Cebu, recalled that many years ago, he did not have to go far to fish.

“Daghang isda diri sauna (There was a lot of fish here before),” he said, pointing to the seawater off the barangay’s thick mangrove forest. But these days, he said, he has to go farther out and stay as long as five hours and come home with very little.

“This could be the effect of climate change. Some commercial fishing vessels also encroach in municipal waters,” he said in Cebuano.

Some mangroves in Day-as were also damaged last August when spilled oil from the sunken m/v St. Thomas Aquinas reached Cordova. The boat had collided with Sulpicio Express Siete off Talisay City.

Mangroves provide food and shelter to juvenile fish and other marine organisms, helping to improve fish populations.

Economic impact

Infographic on commercial vs municipal fishery in Central Visayas
(Sun.Star Graphics/Rigil Kent Ynot)

Overfishing that leads to fish catch declines will hurt the economy, as the fishing industry contributes 1.9 percent to the gross domestic product.

Depleted fish stocks could also mean the loss of jobs for 1,614,368 individuals nationwide who rely on fishery for livelihood, more than 125,000 of them in Central Visayas.

Food security is also at risk, as Bfar reveals that fish and fish products make up 11.7 percent of the Filipino’s daily food consumption or more than half of the animal protein he consumes.

As early as 2001, Bfar officials had already noted that the Visayan Sea could no longer yield enough marine products for everyone in the Visayas, Sun.Star Cebu reported in 2002. So the country could not rely on local production alone.

In 2011, the Philippines imported US $217 million worth of fish and fishery products, which included $102 million worth (or 132,707 metric tons) of tuna, mackerel and sardines.

Total Philippine fishery production (capture and culture of aquatic plants and animals) that year had slid 3.6 percent to 4.97 million metric tons from 2010.

See the signs

Fisheries expert Nygiel Armada said there is overfishing when catch and catch rates decline despite increased effort (longer time at sea or use of more efficient gear), there are increasing mortality and exploitation rates, changes or shifts in species composition, leveling off of marine landings, and concentration of fishing efforts within a small area.

Belga said declining fish stocks is caused by increased fishing efforts. He said

commercial fishing is the major contributor to overfishing because of the gear used.

“One commercial fishing vessel can get tons of fish in one night,” he said. Municipal

fishermen, on the other hand, can get only a few kilos if they are lucky.

Republic Act 8550 or the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 declares the sea extending 15 kilometers from the shore of a town or city as municipal waters, where municipal fisherfolk have preferential rights. Municipal fisherfolk are those who catch fish using boats or bancas of three gross tons or less, or without using boats.

In Central Visayas, there are 56,142 municipal fishing bancas and 565 commercial fishing vessels.

Municipal fisherfolk caught 52,816.9 metric tons, while commercial fishing operations yielded 39,836 metric tons in 2011. This shows that each municipal fishing banca caught about .94 ton while one commercial fishing vessel caught 70.51 tons in 2011.

Central Visayas is surrounded by the Visayan Sea, Camotes Sea, Danajon Bank, Tañon Strait, Cebu Strait, Bohol Sea and East Sulu Sea.

Catch ceilings

RA 8550 provides that Bfar impose catch ceilings in fishing grounds to prevent overfishing and depletion of breeding stocks. The catch ceiling would be based on the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) to be determined by Bfar.

The MSY is the largest average quantity of fish that can be harvested from a fish stock/resource within a period of time on a sustainable basis.

But Bfar Director Asis Perez said the MSY cannot be applied to Philippine fishing grounds, which are multi-species. He said the MSY can be applied on specific species, like tuna, a pelagic migratory species.

The Philippines is part of a regional body that ensures the management of tuna.

Bfar adviser Armada said catch ceilings can still be imposed in fishing grounds even without the MSY by regulating the number of fishing vessels in an area.

Trash fish

Armada, also deputy chief of party of the Ecosystems Improved for Sustainable Fisheries (Ecofish) Project, said surveys indicate that the kinds of fish caught have changed.  

“We are now getting what we used to consider as trash fish,” he said.

He said the presence of trash fish or species of low commercial value is an indication of overfishing because some of them serve as food for bigger fish. “Their population has grown because their predators are no longer there,” he said.

This has implications on fisherfolk incomes. Trash fish bring low returns to fishermen whose costs, like fuel for their motorized bancas and kerosene for lamps, continue to rise.

Armada also said in a 2004 study that the abundance of shrimp and squid in relation to fish biomass indicates decline of catch. Shrimp and squid have replaced finfish in the food web.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), trash fish in the Philippines come in two categories: the commercially known fish that are too small for the fresh fish market and the non-commercially known species both in adult and juvenile forms.

Demersal (bottom-dwelling) fish include slipmouths, lizardfishes, goatfishes, mullets, mojarras, flatfishes and glassfishes. Non-commercial fish groups consist of cardinal fish, puffer fish, trigger fish, trumpet fish, flying gurnards, goby fish and filefish.

The 1998-2002 NSAP listed sunrise goatfish (timbugan) among the major commercial fish species in the Visayan Sea. In Bfar’s 2011 Fisheries Profile, slipmouth (sapsap) was among the major species caught by commercial fishery with a catch of 19,533 metric tons.

“Landings of low value/trash fish in the Philippines result mainly from the use of demersal gear,” read the FAO report, which was based on 2003 data. “About 41 percent of total low value/trash fish landings are caught by trawls, 22 percent by modified Danish seine, 12 percent by beach seine, and four percent by push net.”

Hurting the poor

Initially, the effects of overfishing hurt municipal fisherfolk the most because they are the ones who cannot afford to venture into other means of livelihood on their own.

But Armada said ultimately, everyone suffers once fish stocks are depleted.

Municipal fisherfolk are also the first to feel the effects of the pollution of coastal waters, degradation of coral reefs and destruction of mangrove forests.

Leonardo Sumagang and his wife Lucrecia rely on their daily catch of bakasi, an eel that serves as the main ingredient of Cordova’s delicacy.

Sumagang said his catch has not been able to recover since the oil spill in August although some mangroves in Day-as have started to grow new leaves. Last Saturday, he returned home at midmorning with less than a kilo of bakasi, which his wife sold for about P100 to a local restaurant.

Not overfished

But commercial fishing operators deny overfishing is taking place.

Romeo Villaceran, president of the Northern Cebu Commercial Fishing Operators Association (NCCFOA), said in Cebuano: “It is even difficult for us to raise the net to the surface because of the volume of fish caught. So you can’t say the sea has been overfished.”

His boats have even risked overturning from the bounty of the sea, he said.

He told Sun.Star Cebu that small fishermen often blame commercial operators for their small catch when their predicament is the result of other causes, like their preference to go drinking instead of fishing if they were able to catch a lot of fish the day before.

He said climate change or the warming of the seas may also explain why the fish seem fewer.

Fish usually congregate near the surface of the water, where it is easy to spot and catch them. But when the water is warm, the fish prefer to go to the deeper and cooler parts of the ocean, favoring commercial operators who have the equipment to fish in deep water, he said.

Commercial fishing is done using passive or active gear on fishing vessels at least 3.1 gross tons. It is not allowed in municipal waters, unless the local government unit (LGU) permits it in the 10.1 to 15 kilometer area and only if the depth is at least seven fathoms.

Big contributors

With about 50 active members, the NCCFOA supplies some 80 percent of the fish in the province of Cebu, said Villaceran.

He said commercial fishing operators had done a lot of good, lifting incomes and enabling many residents to become professionals.

Before commercial fishing, many residents just engaged in farming, the proceeds of which were not enough to send their children to college. But now, fishermen can get a big share in the proceeds and also get cash advances from their employers, he said.

He himself has put the children, and even the wives, of his fishermen through school.

Since each boat carries 50 fishermen or workers, it can help 50 families, he said, aside from the laborers in the ports, including the Pasil Fish Port in Cebu City, where their fish is brought.

Closing the sea

He said when the Bfar implemented a closed season for sardines and mackerel in the Visayan Sea from Nov. 15, 2012 to March 15, 2013 to protect fish stocks, 70 percent of the group’s fishermen had to go as far as Leyte, Palawan and Masbate to catch fish.

The rest stopped fishing and planted crops instead, earning less than fishing. He said if LGUs provided help to the displaced fishermen, it was probably minimal.

The Bfar, however, attempted to help those affected by the closed season by encouraging the commercial fishermen to farm fish.

Villaceran said they were just starting to enjoy growing bangus (milkfish) and lapu-lapu (grouper) near the Hagnaya Port in San Remigio town when super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) destroyed their fish farms last Nov. 8.

Traumatized by the loss of their investment, none of them has returned to fish farming, Villaceran said, though it would have been a good business since the cost of farming fish was similar to the cost of catching fish in the wild.

He said fish farms in Metro Manila are better protected because these are surrounded by mountains and that region has big lakes, unlike in Cebu.


Aside from the failed fish farming venture, the group tried to improve fish stocks by installing more than 200 fish condominiums in the marine sanctuary of Visayan Sea Squadron (VSS) chairman Antonio Oposa in Sta. Fe town, Bantayan Island. The VSS monitors illegal activities in the Visayan Sea and prosecutes violators.

The three-storey fish condos made of bamboo and used fish nets, and covered with limestone and cement mixture, serve as alternative shelter for fish, and breeding and nursery areas for marine life, especially after Yolanda damaged the coral reefs in the area.


The plan was to encircle Bantayan Island with 1,000 fish condos, but Villaceran said the operators were “discouraged” from continuing the project after constant threats by the Bfar, which materialized in Fisheries Administrative Order (FAO) 246 last year, to take their livelihood away from them by disallowing the use of Danish seine and modified Danish seine (locally called holbot-holbot, zipper, palusot, bira-bira, hulahoop, liba-liba or buli-buli) as fishing methods in Philippine waters.

The Sept. 12, 2013 order gave them six months to switch to legitimate fishing gear.

Villaceran said most of the NCCFOA members used the “zipper” method.

Danish seine consists of a conical net with a pair of wings, the ends of which are connected to a rope embedded with buri, plastic strips, sinkers or similar materials to serve as scaring/herding device and hauled through a mechanical winch or by manpower. In modified Danish seine, hauling ropes pass through a ring permanently attached to a tom weight.

“They say the ring destroys the bottom of the ocean and the corals,” said Villaceran.

“They (Bfar) were the ones who introduced that fishing method, but they did not introduce a new method to replace that.”

The 2004 Bfar-CMRP publication said Danish seine fishery was introduced to Central Visayas in the 1980s as large-scale municipal fishing gear. Full commercial operation occurred after Bfar in 1986 provided the gear’s commercial size design and trained fishermen to use it.

Aside from Danish seine operators able to stay away from corals, Villaceran said disturbing the seabed was not always bad.

He said this action releases plankton, which fish feed on, drawing fish to the area that otherwise would just pass without stopping.

An alternative fishing method, approved by Bfar, he said, is purse seine. But this is costly because of the hydraulics involved, so commercial fishing operators filed a case and received a temporary restraining order preventing the Bfar from implementing FAO 246.

Purse seine is an encircling net with a line at the bottom passing through rings attached to the net, which can be drawn or pursed.

Helping rivals

Villaceran said clamping down on commercial fishing operators in Cebu would only benefit the fishermen in Zamboanga (in Mindanao) who, even now, threaten their livelihood.

Whenever they sell their fish in Cebu, they drive down prices, hurting business, he said.

From the usual P1,500 to P2,000 they could get for each tub of fish carrying 30 to 35 kilos, the price would drop to P300-P400/tub because the Zamboanga fishermen could bring to Cebu as many as 1,000-3,000 tubs in a single night.

“Arkansi sa crudo. Unya trucking pa,” he said. (We can no longer recover the cost of our boat fuel and the trucking expense.)

Despite the resistance of fishermen, the Bfar is not losing hope that it can stop overfishing.

Belga said that in a previous survey, the exploitation rate of the Visayan Sea was 80

percent. He attributed the improvement to 70 percent to law enforcement efforts and the four-month closed season in the Visayan Sea.

Armada said the biomass of demersal fish in the Visayan Sea has improved.

He cited trawl surveys by the bureau and partner organizations showing that from 1.63 metric tons per square kilometer (mt/km2) in 2007, fish biomass rose to 2.56 mt/km2 in 2013.

This shows that if fishermen just give the sea a chance to renew itself, it will.

[READ: Second of three parts: Augmenting fish production no easy task