Advocate lauds countryside fish port projects

Sardine fishes caught by artisanal fisherfolk are prone to spoilage because of lack of post-harvest support from the government. (Ven Carbon)

Environmental advocate Oceana lauded plans of the government to prioritize the construction of fish ports in 11 coastal provinces and the rehabilitation of 20 identified municipal fish ports, aimed at decreasing post-harvest losses through the construction of cold storage facilities in fish posts nationwide.

“This is welcome news for our artisanal or municipal fisherfolk, especially in coastal areas that could not scale up their post-harvest and cooperative opportunities due to the absence of facilities,” Oceana said in a statement.

These initiatives are aligned with the policy objectives that have been in place since the 1998 Fisheries Code. As stated in Section 2(e) in Republic Act 8550, as amended by Republic Act 10654, which stipulate that the State must provide, first and foremost to the municipal fisherfolk, any appropriate technology, research, financial, and marketing assistance support, including the construction of post-harvest facilities.

But these policy objectives hardly reflect the realities on the ground. In fact, because of the lack of post-harvest services in their areas, artisanal fisherfolks have learned how to fend for themselves, such as the women fisherfolk in Victoria in Northern Samar and Ragay in Camarines Sur by organizing themselves to reduce post-harvest losses.

According to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the country’s current fish spoilage is between 25 to 40 percent due to a lack of post-harvest equipment.

“This converts to major losses in income for the fisheries sector. But more than the band-aid solutions that are provided in the government’s plans to address this recurring problem, we need to enable a better fisheries governance system that ensures inclusive, transparent, participatory, and accountable mechanisms are followed. Otherwise, we will end up with facilities that will be left un-used, under-utilized, improperly managed, and worse, become ‘white elephants’,” Oceana added.

While the government seeks to reduce spoilage to 10-15%, it must first recognize the fact that solving this problem is not as simple as providing ice machines or freezers. These are good steps; however, these are only a small part of the entire value chain that starts with the fishers and ends with the consumers.

As long as municipal fish catches remain to be many units of small volumes, the reduction of spoilage will always be elusive.

Structural and/or organizational reforms of small fishers and fishing communities must be done in terms of landing their catches, making locally available seafood, and/or transporting them to urban centers within and outside of municipalities. This can help reduce the prices of fish in the markets.

At the same time, the processing of fish and aquatic products must also be based locally so that more money is retained locally, and local economies will grow.

Likewise, it is important to conduct a thorough assessment of the government’s past programs relating to post-harvest activities and apply lessons from these in designing, planning, and implementing new programs.

“Otherwise, we will be repeating past mistakes and simply wasting limited government resources on initiatives that are doomed to fail in the guise of making us look and sound good.”

An ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management is well-entrenched in our fisheries laws and regulations. This underpins the management of natural fishery management areas that are supported by research, technical services, and guidance by the State (Section 3f, RA 10654). Simply put, we cannot manage our fisheries ecosystems without the requisite technical support and services from the national government.

However, the downward trajectory of fish stocks is a symptom of the fact that we are not effectively managing our fisheries.

One of the finest examples of this is the sardine fisheries. The importance of sardines as the most accessible protein source for Filipinos cannot be overemphasized. It makes up around 15% of the total fish catch.

But despite its approval as a national management plan for 2020-2025 for sardines, the plan tragically remains on paper.

The Department of Agriculture through the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources has not released the implementing guidelines for the plan.

As a result, news about sardine spoilage continues to be reported in several areas of the country. We have to translate the plans into action and implement our National Sardines Management Plan immediately.

The plan can contribute to the administration’s target to reduce spoilage to about 8-10% as it has been long the objective under the said plan to reduce post-harvest losses by 10% as early as 2022. There are no moral or legal reasons to delay the immediate implementation of the national plan to manage sardines.

Seafood is central to Filipino cuisine. This was confirmed in the State of Fish in Nutrition Systems in the Philippines report of the Department of Science and Technology-Food and Nutrition Research Institute and MRAG Asia Pacific.

The study shows that the highest consumption rates are in the Zamboanga Peninsula (Region IX), the Western Visayas, and Caraga regions.

Likewise, despite the availability of locally caught fish, food security and fish consumption is decreasing over time, particularly in low-income and rural households, because of the increasing price of food, a growing population, unsustainable development, and impacts from natural disasters (climate change), and lingering effects of the pandemic.

Hence, it strongly recommends to prioritize the sustainable management of our fisheries and the wellbeing of artisanal fisherfolks for food and nutritional security and livelihoods to reduce hunger and poverty incidence in the Philippines.

As emphasized time and again, municipal, or artisanal fishers cannot remain the “poorest of the poor,” they produce nutritious food, yet they suffer from malnourishment.

“On a final note, food security for all Filipinos is the country’s ultimate challenge. But there is no doubt that we can achieve this lofty goal if we protect our food resources, especially those that come from our oceans. Thus, let us take immediate steps towards a more responsive, sustainable, pro-people, and science-based management of our fisheries, alongside complementary measures, such as improving post-harvest activities,” Oceana said.