Tuna fishers turn tides through sustainability

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — At the break of dawn, two to three fishermen would set sail for Lagonoy Gulf to look for Yellowfin Tuna. Some would venture out to sea at night - also hoping for a catch.

They would make ten daily trips - each voyage lasting up to 12 hours. But the fishermen would only reel in about two Yellowfin Tuna - each potentially weighing 25 to 45 kilograms.

A typical routine for members of the Federation of the Lagonoy Gulf Tuna Fishers, according to its president Antogenese "Gene" Reaso.

"Ang iba aalis ng early morning balik ng hapon," he said. "'Yung panggabi…kung minsan aalis ng mga 7 o' clock ng gabi balik ng umaga… Kung malakas ang dagat ginagabi sila ng kaunti."

[Translation: Some would leave early in the morning and come back in the afternoon. Those who leave in the evening… sometimes they set sail at 7 o' clock and come back in the morning. If the waves are strong, they stay out late.]

Reaso was born in Malilipot, Albay near the shore of the 3,700 square-kilometer Lagonoy Gulf, east of the country, which inevitably entwined his life with fishing.

After leaving an accounting job, he started the Malilipot Tuna Fishers Association with the help of conservation nonprofit World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Philippines. It later became one of the accredited groups in the Lagonoy federation based in Camarines Sur, Catanduanes, and Albay.

The Lagonoy fishers comprise half of the Philippine Tuna Handline Partnership (PTHP), the country's first fishery to earn a certification from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a global standard for sustainability.

The other half is the Occidental Mindoro Federation of Tuna Fishers Associations located west of the country, in Mindoro Strait. The strait serves as a pathway for tuna, and houses fishermen from the towns of Mamburao, Sablayan and San Jose.

As early as 2011, the fishers underwent training from WWF - studying sustainable methods such as steering away from corals and marine sanctuaries. They also learned not to practice shark-finning or clipping off the fins of sharks, then returning their carcasses to the sea.

"Sa map ng Gulf iplinot kung alin ba dito 'yung labasan ng mga tuna - 'yung fisher tinanong - at saka 'yung mga corals in-identify namin," Reaso also shared.

[Translation: On a map of the Gulf, we plotted which areas we could find tuna, and we were asked to identify the corals.]

The tuna fishers use handline fishing gear - simply made of circular reels with a single hook - intended to catch one fish at a time. The tools limit their purchase, but allow preservation of younger and smaller species in the waters. It was one of the factors that hooked the MSC's attention.

Overharvested seas

The certification came as Lagonoy Gulf, seen as a spawning ground for tuna, saw dwindling stock in the past few years due to overfishing.

"Ang assessment ay sa klase ng species, pero overharvested na talaga ang ating fishery," said Noemi "Babes" Lanzuela, chief of the Regional Fisheries Training and Fisherfolk Coordination Division of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) in the Bicol Region.

[Translation: We assess by species but the fishery overall, is really overharvested.]

Data from the BFAR's National Stock Assessment Program showed that in 2011 - when the fishers only started organizing - the total catch for the Yellowfin was at 200,300 kilograms.

It peaked in 2017 with over 391,154, but the most recent report in 2020 showed it had dropped to 138,028. Lanzuela said these figures do not represent the actual population in the fishing ground, only an estimate.

Lanzuela said BFAR is proposing to regulate fishing activity by banning commercial boats from encroaching on municipal waters.

Under the Fisheries Code, only registered municipal fisherfolk and their cooperatives or organizations may exploit municipal waters. But local officials may allow commercial fishing activity in a designated area.

The issue of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing has been around for a while.

In 2012, the Philippines was named the third largest tuna producer in the world. 

But two years later, the European Union slapped the country with a yellow card due to failure to control illegal fishing activity - one step away from a red card, which would then ban all Philippine fisheries products from the EU market.

The EU lifted the yellow card in 2015 after the country amended its Fisheries Code to include higher penalties against illegal fishing.

However, it still seems to be a concern in tuna hunting grounds, so the communities decided to take matters into their own hands by creating management plans.

Power in planning

The local tuna management plans were built through the Fisheries and Aquatic Resource Management Councils (FARMCs), which allowed fishers to propose their own policies to the local government.

For example, in Mindoro Strait, there is often the problem of "dayuhan" or trespassing boats, so the Mindoro Strait fisheries plan proposed regular sea patrolling and a direct hotline to report violations, among other solutions.

"Hindi naman dayuhan na sa ibang bansa kumbaga taga-ibang probinsya na malalaking bangka," said Bernard Mayo, the Mindoro federation's secretary. "Pumapasok sila tsaka doon din sila nagloload at unload sa bawat munisipyo."

[Translation: I don't mean foreigners, but those who are from other provinces who use big boats. They enter the municipal waters and load and unload (tuna).]

Mayo, who also serves as chair of the FARMC in Mindoro Strait, said the role of fishers in planning is crucial.

"Halos two years kami nagmeeting tungkol diyan (local tuna management plan)," he said. "Kinalap namin 'yung lahat ng lider ng mangingisda kung ano 'yung kalayagan ng palaisdaan nila."

[Translation: We held meetings about it for nearly two years. We gathered information on the state of fisheries from the fisherfolk leaders.]

"Sa kanila (fishers) nanggaling lahat ng idea kung paano buuin dahil hindi kami makakabuo basta-basta kung hindi sa kanila nanggaling," he added.

[Translation: All of the ideas on how to form (the local tuna management plan) came from the fishers and we could not have done it without them.]

WWF trained the fishers to organize but it took years for them to trust the trainers and other partners - such as traders and tuna processors.

"We need to set-up a multi-dialogue platform that will give them the opportunity to discuss their issues and sentiments since they have varying interest in the tuna supply chain," said WWF's PTHP Project head Joann Binondo.

Lanzuela said the MSC certification is proof that the system is working.

What's the catch?

Gene Reaso, President of the Federation of the Lagonoy Gulf Tuna Fishers, at the National Tuna Congress in 2019

But the certification itself is not the end-game, as it falls short of looking at other aspects of fishers' work, such as socio-economic factors, Binondo pointed out.

"Nakita namin na [We saw that] yes, we are MSC-certified but we don't want that our fishers are still poor," she said.

Among the challenges the program had to address was the fishers relying on casas, or middlemen.

Reaso said his peers could rake in about ₱6,000 for a 30-kilo Yellowfin tuna, but a cut goes to the casa. To remedy this, the fishers set up their own "fishing stations," where they themselves prepare and sell their catch to consumers. The rates are based on quality - Grade A tuna at ₱350 per kilo and above, Grade B at ₱260, and Grade C at ₱120.

These prices fluctuate based on supply and demand. But the attractiveness of sustainable fishing promises the fishers that rates will remain steady, no matter the season.

Sam Garcia, chairman of the Philippine Association of Tuna Processors Inc. (PATPI) said exporters may determine the steady rate by February. The PATPI is also a partner of the PTHP.

"Hindi na natin ibababa ang presyo [The prices will no longer drop]," he said. "As long as the quality is right, we will maintain the same price all year round so [they] will be protected also."

The fishers are banking on this guarantee so they can always earn and save money.

Moving forward

Bernard Mayo, Mindoro I-FARMC Chair and secretary of the Occidental Mindoro Federation of Tuna Fishers Associations, at the National Tuna Congress in 2019.

Another remaining gap, however, is not every fishery has connections to a nonprofit like WWF.

The fishers would have to rely on their respective BFAR programs, but the local offices are confronted with limited capacities due to manpower issues.

Lanzuela said her division in Bicol only has three regular employees, herself included. As a result, each regular staff member holds multiple designations, while their budget remains meager. Lanzuela on her own not only oversees Lagonoy Gulf, but all fisheries in the Bicol Region.

"Hindi ako pwedeng magkasakit," she said. "That's how hard life is with BFAR, pero maligaya kami makita mo naman na successful 'yung mga mangingisda."

[Translation: I cannot afford to get sick. That's how hard life is with BFAR, but we are happy when we see the fishermen become successful.]

Ultimately, what the bureau and fisheries are clamoring for is their own Department of Fisheries, Lanzuela added. But the proposal is still pending in Congress.

For Mayo, as he reflects on his life from pursuing photography to planning fishery projects, he said he wants to leave a legacy behind.

"Kung maisaayos namin 'yung mga mangingisda, 'yung palaisdaan, eh di legacy namin 'yun," he said. "Kahit pa mahirap, kahit pa abala na sa trabaho kung tutuusin…may pamilya, may mga anak na nag-aaral, ay talagang naroon pa rin 'yung pagtulong."

[Translation: If we are able to manage the fishers and fisheries, then that would be our legacy. While it may be difficult, with hours spent on work… we have our own families and kids still in school, we still have the initiative to help.]