Last September 15, the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Food convened for a public hearing on the proposed creation of a Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DFAR). Representatives from the academe, the private sector, the government, and fisher folk groups shared their insights regarding the current state of the Philippine waters and its resources. Here are 10 things we learned during the hearing:
1. The Philippines can be an aquaculture superpower.
Territory-wise, we already are. The Philippines has 2.2 million square kilometers of territorial waters. A total of our 1,098 barangays and 928 of our cities and municipalities, including 25 of our major cities, lie along the coast.
We are fourth in terms of the longest coastline in the world – behind only Canada, Indonesia, and Russia (fifth, if we include Greenland’s territory that is part of Denmark).
Because of this, a staggering 80% of our territory is oceans and seas, while only 20% is land. That means the 100 million of our population occupies only less than 20% of our total territory.
2. Fisheries to land-based agri ratio of DA budget is 10:90, as opposed to 80:20 of territory.
The disconnect between the breadth of our marine territory and the budget allocated for it is glaring: In the 2017 proposed budget for the Department of Agriculture, roughly P6 billion is dedicated to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. That is only around 10% of the total agriculture budget for maintaining the 80% majority of our territory.
3. Our yamang-dagat earns us billions of pesos annually.
In 2014, the Philippines was the 7th fish-producing country in the world, with an output of 4.690 million metric tons of fish, as well as crustaceans, mollusks, and aquatic plants contributing P197 billion or 1.6% to the total GDP. We are also the leading exporters of seaweeds in the world, with 1.5 million metric tons worth more than P116 million farmed in 2014.
4. As the most marine bio-diverse in the world, we are also the top exporter of tropical fish.
Lolita Ty, president of the Philippine Tropical Fish Association of the Philippines, told the Senate public hearing that the country, which is part of the “Coral Triangle”, is the top exporter of marine tropical fishes in the world. Regarded as the Amazon of the Seas, this 5.7 million square kilometers of ocean water make up the epicenter of marine biodiversity that provides the livelihood of over 120 million people.
We even bested the Great Barrier Reef as the World Center for Marine Biodiversity, as declared by the World Bank in 2006.
5. And our seas are in grave danger from over-fishing.
Over-fishing occurs when more fish are caught before they can replenish their population. Right now, 10 of the 13 major fishing grounds in the country are over-fished. If this continues, the marine ecology will have no chance of recovering, jeopardizing the livelihood of 1.8 million Filipinos, and a multi-billion peso industry.
Other environmental concerns threaten our aquatic resources: Widespread improper production practices lead to environmental degradation, plus an average of 20 typhoons visit the country annually.
6. Yet the Filipino fisher remains the poorest of the poor.
About 1.8 million Filipinos rely on fisheries for their livelihood. But the fisher is the poorest of the poor – even poorer than the farmer. More than 2 in 5 fishers are poor. Small-scale fishermen earn an average of P178.43 daily, or barely P5,000 a month, significantly lower than the national minimum wage of P444 for the agricultural sector.
Note that according to the NEDA, a Filipino family of five needs an average of around P9,000 per month to meet their most basic food and non-food needs. A fisherman would need an additional P4,000 to be able to adequately provide for the needs of his or her family.
7. Despite all these, the Bureau for Fisheries and Aquatic Resources has been downgraded.
Opposing the creation of DFAR, DA Undersecretary Segfredo R. Serrano claimed that the BFAR has been upgraded. However, Atty. Annaliza Vitug, Chief of the Fisheries Regulatory and Quarantine Division, clarified that, BFAR has been downgraded from a staff bureau and its manpower component reduced from 3,000 to 2,208.
With the Philippines’ 2.2 million square kilometers of territorial water, each BFAR personnel would need to patrol 1,000 square kilometers to cover the country. That is a lot of water for one person.
8. Fewer youngsters are choosing to study Fisheries.
Instead, today’s youth are choosing courses that ensure future high-paying jobs, preferably abroad. Only 15 state universities and colleges offer a program on Fisheries, with barely enough enrollees annually. The passing rate for the Fisheries and Technologists Licensure Examination is also problematic, with only 3 of the 15 hurdling the 50% passing grade.
9. The creation of DFAR used to be a priority of the current administration
During the 2016 Presidential campaign, then-Presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign agenda strongly supported the creation of a separate department for fisheries as part of his planned initiatives to ensure food security.
DA Secretary Manny Pinol was not able to attend the hearing, but Undersecretary Segfredo Serrano clarified in his place that the Secretary has been “grossly misquoted” in response to news reports citing his support for the creation of a DFAR.
The Secretary has subsequently taken to his official Facebook page regarding his stand on the matter: He is against it.
10. We need to update our textbooks ASAP.
Dr. Estifania Co of UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies reiterated that, instead of the customary 7,107 islands, the Philippines now has a few more. In fact, we are nearly at 7,500 islands as of the last territorial survey.
The public hearing has been suspended, but we expect to learn more next time. The invited resource speakers asked that the Coast Guard and the Climate Change Commission, among others, be invited to the next public hearing. Most expressed support and optimism for the creation of a department that will ensure the proper utilization and protection of the country’s aquatic resources.