Breakfast at risk: Philippine activists work to turn the tide on depleted fish stocks
- A United Nations report released in March projected that in 30 years all commercial fishing could cease in the Asia-Pacific region
- The Philippines’ marine resources are under threat from a combination of plastic pollution, climate change, overfishing and coral reef damage
Dried fish, fried to a crisp with a splash of spiced vinegar, garlic fried rice and a runny egg yolk, is the kind of breakfast that Filipinos who live abroad crave.
The dish, often made with sardines, anchovies or round scad, uses dried seafood products that are a staple in the Philippines, where they are cheap, widely available and local.
But a United Nations report released in March this year projected that in 30 years all commercial fishing could cease in the Asia-Pacific region if existing threats to the region’s biodiversity aren’t acted upon.
From plastic pollution to climate change, overfishing to damaged coral reefs, one of the country’s most valuable resources is under threat – and a rising number of Filipinos are trying to address the problem.
“Many of the problems we have around food security and depleted marine resources are a matter of us not fulfilling our role as responsible stewards of our environment,” said Rafael Dionisio, founder of The Circle Hostel, a chain of eco-friendly hostels that is spearheading a drive to reduce plastic usage.
According to the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), the country produces more than 4.5 million tonnes of seafood and aquatic plants a year from its rivers, seas and lakes, making it the world’s ninth largest producer. But the volume of fish harvested has been falling since 2010.
“We need people to understand how our ecosystem works and how its health affects our fisheries,” Dionisio said. “Once they do, then we’ve got a ball game.”
One of the biggest threats to the sustainability of marine life is plastic pollution and the Philippines is now the third highest contributor to plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, according to Greenpeace Philippines.
Other waste is also a threat. Filipino officials in April ordered the closure of the resort island of Boracay – famed for its white sand beaches – after it was discovered that most of island’s sewage flowed directly into the sea. The rapid decline in Philippine marine resources has prompted concerns over not only the nation’s dried fish breakfast but the communities that depend on fish to survive.
BFAR data shows there are more than 1.6 million fishing operators in the Philippines, which has a population of 105 million. About 85 per cent are small-scale fishermen, with the rest commercial boats and aquaculture farms.
Dhang Tecson, co-founder of social enterprise Fishers and Changemakers Inc. (FCI) that works with fishing families near Cebu island, said years of unauthorised fishing practices – such as dynamite and fine-net fishing – had combined with climate change to cut the catch of small-scale fishermen. Large fishing companies exploiting fishing grounds close to shore have also reduced the seafood available for smaller-scale fishermen to catch, pushing them further out to sea and into greater peril from unpredictable weather.
Tecson said as fishermen’s incomes and food supplies became more insecure, more would resort to whatever means necessary to provide for their families.
“Small-scale fishers currently work about 12 to 16 hours per day … They have absolutely no safety net,” she said in a phone interview.
“As much as they don’t want to fish illegally, many don’t have a choice because of the current state of the country’s waters.”
Tecson said her organisation’s goal was to build sustainable fishing communities across the country and maintain Cebu’s tradition of making dried seafood, a delicacy of the region.
But to maintain their communities, islanders need education on sustainable fishing methods that can be adapted for their area.
Small-scale fishers in the Philippines are primarily men, mostly middle-aged and with little or no formal education, according to a study by Ateneo de Manila University.
Many fishing families live below the poverty line on remote islands that are only accessible by boat and where entire communities rely solely on fishing as a source of income.
Tecson said historically most efforts to improve livelihoods on the islands were created for fishermen as “projects” to help communities.
Non-governmental organisations, for example, built fishing co-operatives and donated facilities, such as warehouses to process and store dried fish. But not everyone knew how to use the resources they were given.
Those tasked with managing money for their co-operatives, for example, were sometimes unused to managing a budget, while women in the communities, who were used to drying their catch under the sun, had no idea how to use machinery to do the job.
“Hardly any training or follow-up existed,” Tecson said.
So with the goal of establishing more sustainable fishing methods – and a new approach to finding new income sources for small-scale fishermen – Tecson and her colleagues created a line of dried seafood products called Balangay’s Best in February 2017.
Through skills training and financial literacy programmes, they hope to help fishermen and their families see “the real value” of their products and view themselves as artisans who keep traditional foods alive, as well as partners in FCI’s business.
“We lived in their community to really understand their challenges,” she said.
Together with RARE Philippines, an arm of a global organisation that supports coastal conservation, they established parameters to define sustainable fishing and are now working with seven communities.
Fishermen who participate need to be licensed and registered, co-manage the fisheries themselves, use the right fishing gear, and only cast their nets at specified times, locations and seasons. But even those who have adopted the new systems face another problem beneath the water’s surface: dying coral.
Less than 30 per cent of the country’s coral reefs are in good condition, according to the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Increases in sea temperature, driven by climate change, can cause corals to bleach or turn white, driving away fish to seek food and shelter elsewhere.
“When corals die, fish move to deeper water, and as a result, fisher(men) have to follow them,” said Dionisio, an avid surfer.
In 2016, Dionisio began working a “plastic solution” drive, which encourages people to stuff plastic waste such as food wrappers into used plastic bottles. The tightly-stuffed bottles are then used as “ecobricks” to build sheds and other light structures.
He said he hoped such initiatives would get people to change their behaviour and take more care of the ocean.
“If the beach isn’t clean, no one’s going to want to play there,” he said in a telephone interview.
“All these oceans are connected. It’s a global issue that we all need to take a look at.”