OFF LAMITAN CITY, Basilan (March 9) – Fisheries officials are projecting an increase of 50,000 metric tons in tuna landings this year following the deployment of more Filipino fishing vessels in the Pocket 1 High Seas in western Pacific Ocean.

“Right now, we already have 14 catcher vessels in the area,” said lawyer Asis Perez, director of the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

Pic: AP.

Perez said he was told by members of the Socsksargen Federation of Fishing and Allied Industries (SFFAI) that approximately 3,000 metric tons in tuna catches originating from the area have already been landed in General Santos City beginning January this year.

Pocket 1 High Seas, some 700 nautical miles (around 1,300 kilometers) southeast of General Santos City, was opened exclusively for Filipino fishing vessels in October last year after it was close to tuna purse seine operations in 2010 and 2011.

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission allowed 36 Filipino tuna catcher vessels with gross tonnage of not more than 250 metric tons to operate in an area of about 590,000 square kilometers east of Indonesia and north of Papua New Guinea.

Pocket 1 High Seas lie along the tuna migratory path that stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Sulu Sea.

It has become a traditional fishing ground for Filipino tuna fishermen as global demand for canned tuna increased over the last 3 decades.

The Philippines ranked 5th in tuna catch and 3rd in canned tuna production worldwide.

General Santos City alone has recorded a total of 112,891 tons of tuna landings in 2011.  Nationwide, average annual Philippine tuna catch is around 165,000 MT.

Deployment of Filipino fishing vessels in Pocket 1 High Seas however was halted after super Typhoon Pablo presumably sank 15 catcher vessels and 35 other fishing boats off eastern Mindanao island.  Most of the lost vessels were racing towards the safety of Philippine shores after warnings were issued by Philippine weather officials.

Only 8 bodies were recovered while 352 fishermen remained missing and are already presumed dead.  Eighteen survived the strongest typhoon to hit southeastern Mindanao in recent memory.

The Philippine exemption, originally set to expire last month, was extended indefinitely except during the WCPFC imposed 4-month purse seine tuna fishing from July to October every year.

Perez said they are hoping Filipino companies who have been identified as among those allowed to operate in Pocket 1 High Seas will be able to deploy their fishing fleet within the year.

The projected volume of catch, he said, will further increase revenues for the tuna industry.

Annual export revenues from canned, processed and fresh chilled tuna are averaging at US$250 million.