LIKE a Facebook relationship status, overfishing in the Visayan Sea is a complicated issue that cannot be addressed by a single solution.

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (Bfar) has implemented programs to manage commercial fishing efforts, enforce prohibitions on destructive fishing practices and provide alternative livelihood opportunities to fisherfolk in the Visayan Sea.

The Visayan Sea is one of the country’s major fishing grounds. It falls under the jurisdiction of the Bicol Region, and Western and Central Visayas.

Among the methods to manage fishing efforts is imposing closed seasons. To allow sardines and mackerel to replenish their stocks, the Bfar implemented a four-month closed season starting Nov. 15, 2012 to March 15, 2013 in the Visayan Sea.

Prudencio Belga Jr., project leader of Bfar’s National Stock Assessment Program (NSAP) for the Visayan Sea, said the closed season may have helped bring down the exploitation ratio of commercial fish stocks in the Visayan Sea to 70 percent from 80 percent.

The closed season coincides with the spawning period of sardines and mackerel.

Nygiel Armada, deputy chief of party of the Ecosystems Improved for Sustainable Fisheries (Ecofish) Project, agreed with Belga but pointed out that the closed season is a “remedial solution.”

“It will make a dent, but it will not solve the problem,” he said. “The ultimate solution is to bring down fishing efforts to sustainable levels.”

Fishpond versus mangrove
FISHPOND VS MANGROVE. An idle fishpond in Barangay Babag, Lapu-Lapu City sits next to a new subdivision. To promote aquaculture, Presidential Decree 43 in 1972 encouraged the conversion of mangroves into fishponds. This was later prohibited by The Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998, which also ordered the reversion of abandoned, undeveloped and underutilized fishponds covered by Fishpond Lease Agreements to their original mangrove state. But this has not happened because having a law is one thing, but implementing it is another. (Sun.Star Cebu photo/Amper Campaña)


Armada, former fisheries management adviser of Bfar, said one way to do this is to improve the licensing of commercial fishing vessels and municipal fisherfolk.

Under Republic Act (RA) 8550, known as The Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998, any person or entity that wishes to engage in commercial fishing must secure a license from the Bfar.

Commercial fishing operators are supposed to secure one license for every fishing vessel they own. But Armada said some operators secure only one license, which they use for all their fishing vessels.

“They just change the name on the license (which bears the name of the vessel). They’re basically tampering with the license,” he said.

The practice prevents Bfar from getting the correct figures on the actual catch of commercial fishing operators, hampering efforts to better manage fish stocks.

Armada recommends the following: imposing stricter rules to prevent the tampering of licenses, imposing a premium for every additional boat licensed to a commercial fishing operator, strengthening the registration of municipal fisherfolk, and abolishing open access licenses so that new licenses will be limited to a specific fishing ground.

He also recommends providing more effective livelihood opportunities, and increasing the value of fish through processing.

Armada said efforts to bring down fishing efforts to sustainable levels should aim for a fish biomass of 3.5 to four metric tons per square kilometer.

According to a Bfar trawl survey in 2013, the fish biomass in the Visayan Sea was 2.56 metric tons per square kilometer. The survey was conducted before super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) devastated many areas in the Visayas last November.

Rightsizing catch

To achieve the sustainable yield, the government has to put its foot down on reducing the number of fishing vessels in operation, Armada said.

A scheme can be developed allowing fishing vessels to operate in shifts so that fishing operators can recoup their investments without breaching catch ceilings, he said.

Armada said that while commercial and municipal fisherfolk both contribute to overfishing, Bfar has identified the former as the priority target of its crackdown on overfishing because of the amount of fish commercial fishing vessels can catch.

On the other hand, Ecofish is working with some local government units (LGUs) to develop an efficient system of registering fisherfolk and recording their catch.

“The goal is to rightsize the fishing effort (at the municipal level) affecting a certain stock,” he said.


Amid the need to regulate fishing efforts, the government, through Bfar, also raises the need to improve the productivity of the aquaculture sector.

In 2011, the combined aquaculture production in Regions 5, 6, 7 and 8 reached 128,282 metric tons for fish and 325,435 metric tons for mussels and seaweeds.

The aquaculture sector, which helps fill the demand for fish and other aquatic products, includes persons and entities that have been allowed to convert foreshore and mangrove areas into brackish water fishponds using a fishpond lease agreement (FLA) from the Bfar.

FLAs are good for 25 years, renewable for another 25 years.

So the development of fishponds has been done at the expense of mangrove forests.

A study by Romeo Dieta and Florida Arboleda of the National Brackishwater Aquaculture Technology Research Center of Bfar states that the country’s mangrove forests

disappeared at 6,685 hectares a year from 1950 to 1972.

“The period coincided with the large-scale conversion of mangrove areas into fishponds,” the study reads.

As early as 1932, the first Fisheries Act, which was Commonwealth Act 4003, already included mangroves among the public forest lands that could be granted permits and leases for fishpond construction.

Dieta et al. said the reason is that coastal areas and resources were managed then under the assumption that while there was limited demand for fish, its supply was unlimited.

Mangroves provide the habitat for many aquatic organisms, including crabs, shells and juvenile fish. A study by Alan White and A. Trinidad in 1998 pointed out that the direct economic values from mangrove wood and fish products range from $150 to $1,396 per hectare a year.

Rapid growth

More rapid expansion of aquaculture was brought about by Presidential Decree (PD) 43 of 1972, which transferred the jurisdiction of public land available for fishpond development to Bfar, and PD 704, the Fisheries Decree of 1975.

Sections 23 to 25 of PD 704 defined the disposition of public lands for fishponds.

Tidal swamps and mangroves were again included in PD 43’s definition of public land available for fishpond development.

Wilfredo Yap, in an appendix to the report “Strategy for Sustainable Aquaculture Development for Poverty Reduction” by the WorldFish Center and Pacific Rim Innovation and Management Exponents Inc. Philippines in 2007, said that although brackish water fishponds share 87 percent of the total aquaculture area, they contribute only 52.8 percent to total production and have the lowest average yield of 1.06 tons per hectare, compared to fresh water ponds with 5.19 tons per hectare.

In Cebu alone, 160 FLAs have been issued covering 1,204.31 hectares.

Alan White and R. De Leon in the Status of Philippine Marine Fisheries (2004) noted that most FLA areas are underutilized or used for purposes other than aquaculture.

Bfar Director Asis Perez said the bureau has started cancelation proceedings on several fishponds considered abandoned, unused and underutilized for five years, but some are under appeal by the operators.

The secretary of the Department of Agriculture, of which Bfar is a line bureau, gives the final approval for the cancelation of FLAs. But Perez said some fishpond operators even go to Malacañang to appeal their cases.

Reversion tricky

RA 8550, passed in 1998, provides that once an FLA is canceled, the fishpond should revert to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which will then rehabilitate the area by reforesting it.

The law also prohibited the conversion of mangroves for any purpose, including


DENR Administrative Order 98-17 also prohibited the conversion of mangrove forests for fishpond development. DENR identified fishpond development as a major cause of mangrove deforestation.

Despite calls for the implementation of the law, the Mangrove Management Handbook of the Philippines 2000 points out that the reversion of abandoned fishponds under FLAs is an “extremely difficult activity that requires considerable time and resources to accomplish. For this reason, there is little practical experience with restoring disused fishponds back into mangroves.”

Options for fisherfolk

In 2010, more than 22 percent of the production of fish, crustaceans and mollusks in the Philippines was undertaken through aquaculture, up from 17 percent in 2003, Bfar data showed.

The 62 percent growth of aquaculture (excluding aquatic plants) during this period versus the 20 percent growth in capture fishing (excluding aquatic plants) highlights the importance of aquaculture in maintaining the fish supply.

But Armada said aquaculture to deter capture fishing is not an equitable option.

Because aquaculture entails investment, very few municipal fisherfolk are able to venture into it.

“The law no longer allows the development of new fishponds, so recent aquaculture activities are mostly at sea. But even then, you need money to build fish cages,” he said.


Freddie Baguio, president of Panaghugpong sa Day-asanong Mananagat (Padama) in Cordova town, Cebu, however, said the fisherfolk organization was able to create more options for its members. One was to build a fish cage about a kilometer from the shore in Barangay Day-as.

Padama obtained the funds to build the fish cage by requiring members to give a portion of their daily earnings to the association to finance projects and activities that benefit the group.

Baguio said the grouper fingerlings grown at the fish cage are still too young to be harvested.

“Wa mi kasugod dayon kay naghuwat mi na mawagtang tong oil spill (We had to wait for the oil spill to disappear before putting in the fingerlings),” he said.

Two ships collided off Talisay City last August, resulting in an oil spill after one of the ships sank.

So the organization can earn revenues while waiting for the grouper to mature, Baguio organized tours to the fish cage and neighboring areas using the three motorized bancas that Padama had purchased earlier.

He said he also encouraged members to use the motorized bancas to fish at night using a kerosene lamp and net.

He said two members can use one boat for night fishing. Members have a schedule to follow when using the boats so that everyone benefits.

Guarding waters

Baguio said Padama guards the coastal areas of Barangay Day-as and the fish cage. But he admitted that they are no match for some commercial fishermen who encroach on the municipal waters.

He said some members are afraid of the commercial fishing vessels whose crews are rumored to be armed.

Environmental lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr. raised the need for stronger law enforcement in

guarding municipal waters, where coral reefs exist.

Belga said dynamite fishing, which destroys coral reefs, has been minimized in the

Visayan Sea.

However, discussions during the recent Environmental Law Talks 3, organized by the University of Cebu and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, raised the threat posed by commercial fishing vessels that encroach on municipal waters on the livelihood of small-scale fisherfolk. Among the areas in Cebu mentioned by forum participants were Alegria, Barili and San Remigio towns.

Lawyer Liza Eisma-Osorio, managing trustee of the Philippine Earth Justice Center, said law enforcement is often weak in areas where there are commercial fishing operators.

Oposa said lack of funds and personnel are not enough reasons for inaction against illegal fishing. Local government officials only need political will, he said, citing the town of Bantayan, Cebu. (See Part 3 of this special report tomorrow for more on the secrets of Bantayan town’s success.)

Oposa, who initiated the Visayan Sea Squadron, helped the Bantayan Police and Bantay Dagat prosecute illegal fisherfolk by designing a pro forma complaint sheet. The complaint sheet simplified the process of filing cases before the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor, because Bantay Dagat personnel would just fill in the spaces for the name of the accused, nature of violation, place and time.

But some forum participants said few cases against illegal fishers reach the trial

stage because judges take pity on the accused, who are usually indigent.

Few alternatives

Enforcement of fishing regulations is ineffective when government fails to offer alternative livelihood that works.

When the closed season was implemented in the Visayan Sea, commercial fishermen were offered assistance to go into aquaculture.

At the national level, Bfar helps fisherfolk by providing technology and materials for aquaculture and seaweed farming. It also encourages processing of fishery products to add value to the catch of fisherfolk.

In 2010, the Philippines ranked 10th in the world in the aquaculture of fish, crustaceans and mollusks, Bfar said. It ranked third in the aquaculture of aquatic plants, including seaweed.

But Armada said fish cages are not advisable in the Visayan Sea, which is often visited by typhoons.

He said Ecofish is studying enterprise development strategies that will provide alternative livelihood to municipal fisherfolk.

Head for land

Osorio, who also works with the Sto. Niño de Cebu Augustinian Social Development Foundation (Snaf), said land-based livelihood provides better options.

“The objective is to take the pressure out of the marine resources,” she said.

She said Snaf plans to train residents in Kinatarcan Island of Sta. Fe town, Bantayan Island, Cebu to produce turmeric and moringa (from the malunggay plant), high-value plant products.

Bfar’s Perez pointed out during the forum that stakeholders—government and the private sector—should take an integrated approach in protecting and managing the country’s marine resources.

“Whatever happens on land affects the sea. So you have to protect the forest if you want to protect the sea,” he said.

Deforestation causes soil erosion that generates sediments, which are carried by rivers and streams to the sea and kill corals. Pollution that occurs inland and garbage thrown in rivers also end up in the sea and kill marine organisms.

Protected areas

In an effort to rehabilitate degraded coral reefs, the government—through the DENR and Bfar—encouraged LGUs to establish marine protected areas (MPAs) in their municipal waters.

Coral reefs support other marine life by providing them with food and shelter.

An MPA has two distinct features: the strict protection zone and the buffer zone. All types of human activity are prohibited in the strict protection zone. Although MPAs are no-take or no fishing zones, some, like the Gilutongan Island Marine Sanctuary in Cordova, allow snorkeling and diving to collect users’ fees, which fund the maintenance of the reserve.

According to the 2012 “Marine Protected Area Management Effectiveness: Progress and Lessons in the Philippines” (by Aileen P. Maypa, Alan T. White, Elline Cañares, Raffy Martinez, Osorio, Porfirio Aliño and Dean Apistar), about 47 percent of MPAs in Central Visayas in 2008 could be described as being in fair condition for having 25 to 49 live hard coral cover.

Only 30 percent could be described as in good condition with live hard coral cover of 50 to 74 percent, while only six percent were in excellent condition with live hard coral cover of 75 to 100 percent.

The study identified the lack of a sustainable financial system, mismanagement, and lack of political and community support as common problems bugging MPAs.


Aliño, during the Environmental Law Talks 3, said creating a network of MPAs is more effective in restoring degraded marine ecosystems.

“MPA networks optimize the synergy connectivity among ecosystems at various scales,” he said. “They scale up benefits in biodiversity conservation, fisheries and tourism.”

MPA networks also benefit migratory species, he said.

He said that because an MPA network involves several LGUs, the costs of maintaining it are shared by participating towns or cities.

Oposa said education is key in getting communities to participate in protecting the sea and its resources. But he admitted that the process is a long one.

“It takes a long time to make people aware and longer time to make them act,” he said.

[READ: First of three parts: Visayan Sea mayday

[READ: Last of three parts: Local governments’ hits and misses in addressing overfishing