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Filipino Fishers Cast an Uncertain Net

Despite providing food for the country, fisher families are among the poorest in the Philippines. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

MANILA, May 9 2013 (IPS) - Minda Moriles, 56, has worked at sea most of her life. A resident in a coastal community in the city of Las Pinas, part of the Philippines’ National Capital Region, her earnings are dictated by what she can catch off the shores of Manila Bay.

“Life is really difficult for us,” Moriles tells IPS, referring to her family of seven. “My husband heads out at three in the morning and comes back at three in the afternoon. But we try our best to feed our family and send some (of the children) to school.”

In between taking care of the children and seeing to all the household duties, Moriles says she often accompanies her husband out to sea, hoping that the catch will be better with two.

Together, they bring in a daily income of about 200 pesos (four dollars), less than half of the minimum wage. Much of this money goes towards purchasing gasoline for a borrowed boat, which guzzles about 1.22 dollars worth of fuel a day, leaving three dollars for the family’s daily expenses.

By comparison, a recent study by the Worker’s Party, a labour rights group, estimated that an average family of six needs a daily income of about 29 dollars to survive.

It is not uncommon for fisherfolk to have large families like Moriles’s. While official figures from the 2011 Family Health Survey (FHS) peg average family size at about 3.6 children for rural areas and 2.7 children for urban areas, the average fisherfolk family size is six, with some couples having as many as 12 to 14 children.

As well as being among the largest, fisher families are also some of the poorest in the country: the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) estimates a poverty incidence of 41.4 percent for the fishing sector, way above the national average of 26.5 percent.

Poverty is highest in southern rural areas like Caraga, Region VII (also known as Central Visayas) and the Bicol Region.

Calamities on the Rise

Severe pollution, environmental degradation and climate change are also doing their part to contribute to the growing crisis for fisher folk.

Rising water temperatures and sea level rise, the telltale signs of climate change, have “had an adverse effect on the fisheries sector,” according to Calvan, making the catch even more uncertain.

Rosales added that fishers have also recorded an increase in calamities like typhoons, some of which wipe out entire communities. In 2011, Typhoon Pedring (also known as Typhoon Nesat) displaced thousands living in the Manila Bay area.

In 2012, storm surges from Typhoon Gener (Typhoon Saola) also forced hundreds of families to flee their homes in coastal towns.
Many blame this situation on widespread government negligence of the fishing and agricultural sectors, which a third of the country’s 93 million inhabitants depend on for a living, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Moriles says impoverished fisherfolk are in desperate need of government assistance, especially in times of calamity, as well as rice subsidies to help feed their families.

A group of concerned fishers recently opened a dialogue with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to demand financial support to augment their income.

One of the many grievances brought to the government agency was the issue of overfishing, which Pablo Rosales, spokesperson of ‘Pangisda Philippines’, a member of the Save the Fisheries Now Network, says is exacerbating poverty among fisher communities.

“Ten out of the 13 major fishing grounds in the Philippines are heavily exploited,” Rosales told IPS on the sidelines of the dialogue, citing figures from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

With over 43,000 inhabitants per square kilometre, Manila is the most densely populated city in the world. Over 25 million people live along its coast and many depend on the sea for survival. The presence of over 70 fishermen per square kilometre has turned the Manila Bay into the most heavily exploited fishing ground in the country.

While the daily catch is dependent on the weather and sea conditions, Rosales says each fisherman harvests an average of three to five kilos of fish on a good day, which sell in the market for 30 to 70 pesos per kilo.

“This amounts to earnings of 150 to 350 pesos (between three and eight dollars) a day,” he says.”

Fisherfolk make between 30 and 70 pesos per kilo of fish in the local market. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

Fisherfolk make between 30 and 70 pesos per kilo of fish in the local market. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

Species like ‘hasa-hasa’ (short bodied mackerel) and ‘galunggong’ (red-tail scad) are indispensable to the local diet, with Filipinos consuming a daily average of 98.6 grammes of fish. A simple meal consists of salted or fried fish, with rice and vegetables.

But while fish are a staple food here, the lives of fishermen are anything but predictable.

“We need to spend money to (get out to sea) but when we cast our nets…there is no certainty that we will be able to catch anything that day, especially in areas where natural resources are being depleted,” according to Rosales.


Disappearing habitats

Fishermen are now demanding that overfished areas be rehabilitated, since fewer fish mean lower incomes.
But according to Dennis Calvan, executive director of Fisheries Reform, a local non-governmental organisation, overfishing is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Fish habitats like coral reefs, mangroves and sea-grass (beds) are already in critical condition,” Calvan told IPS.

A briefer prepared by the Save the Fisheries Now Network states that over 70 percent of coral reefs are in a state of degradation; less than one-third of the country’s 450,000 hectares of mangroves remain; and an estimated half of all sea-grass beds have been lost or severely degraded during the past 50 years.

In their dialogue with the welfare department, Calvan and other fisher folk asked the government to develop a poverty alleviation programme specifically targeting the poorest of the poor, including a “roadmap to recovery” for the Philippines’ oceans.

According to Calvan, the roadmap should contain “plans on how to improve income from fishing, rehabilitate important fishery habitats, protect and improve the remaining coral reefs through the establishment of Marine Protected ares and reforest mangrove areas.”

The alliance of fisherfolk is already conducting coastal cleanups and mangrove reforestation in an effort to rehabilitate the natural resources they rely on for their livelihood.

The activist alliance ‘Pamalakaya’ has been pushing for mangrove reforestation along the Manila Bay from Cavite City to the Bataan province to preserve 26,000 hectares of foreshore area.

Fisher folk are also urging Congress to pass a bill to establish a separate Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources that will be equipped to respond to major issues plaguing the sector.

At present BFAR falls under the purview of the Department of Agriculture, with limited resources and personnel: according to recent statistics, BFAR’s budget for 2013 is 24 million dollars, which Rosales believes is inadequate “for a country of 7,107 islands with an area of 2.2 million square kilometres of territorial ocean waters.”

Until the government steps up its efforts, people like Moriles will continue to struggle.

“There are days when we go without meals just so that the children can go to school,”­ says Moriles, who sees education as a ticket out of poverty.

“We’re old already. When the time comes that there are no more fish in the sea, at least my children will be able to work somewhere else.”

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