For  years, Philippine tuna production was tied to the country's bilateral fishing agreement with neighbor Indonesia.  Recent developments there however is sending jitters to Filipino companies who had invested  there heavily to gain access to their waters.Pic: Edwin Espejo

For years, Philippine tuna production was tied to the country’s bilateral fishing agreement with neighbor Indonesia. Recent developments there however is sending jitters to Filipino companies who had invested there heavily to gain access to their waters.Pic: Edwin Espejo

GENERAL SANTOS CITY – Philippine fisheries director Asis Perez finds nothing wrong with the renewed crackdown on illegal fishing by Indonesian authorities.

“In the same manner that we have been protecting our fishing grounds,” Perez said, citing an incident north of Luzon where a Taiwanese fisherman was killed by Philippine Coast Guard authorities after a sea chase inside Philippine waters.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti has threatened not to issue new licenses to foreign fishing companies as it races to protect its fishing grounds from illegal fishing.

The Indonesian fisheries minister, who captured international attention for sinking foreign boats caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters, said the freeze on issuing new licenses will run through April.

But the likelihood that it will no longer issue new licenses is increasing.

“The moratorium will end on 30 April. We don’t see that we should continue (with the moratorium). We have done verifications. There are a few boats that will never ever again be allowed to fish in our waters. But for the new ones – no more,” Susi was quoted in a report by Channel NewsAsia.

Reports also said the fisheries ministry wants to impose a 100-percent Indonesian manning on foreign-owned fishing vessels with licenses to fish in their territorial waters.

Transferring catches from one boat to another while out at sea will also now be illegal.

With its long coastline running parallel along the migratory path of yellow fin tuna and other tuna-like species, Indonesian waters are among the richest tuna fishing grounds in the world.

Filipino investors worried

Several Filipino-owned companies began to put up processing and canning plants in Indonesia following the termination of the bilateral fishing agreement between the two countries in 2006.

Among the General Santos City-based Filipino fishing companies that are now largely operating outside Philippine fishing grounds are RD Fishing and TSP Marine.

Navotas-based Frabelle Fishing, the country’s largest tuna fishing company, likewise opened up fishing operations in Papua New Guinea.

A consortium of Filipino fishing companies from General Santos also bought the former tuna canning plant of Purefoods in Bitung, Indonesia to gain access to the latter’s fishing grounds.

But the new Widodo government is making Filipino tuna companies who have invested there jittery.

Filipino-owned but Indonesian-flagged fishing vessels have temporarily suspended operations in Indonesia while waiting for clarification on the fresh fisheries policies of the Indonesian government.

While the majority of the crews on these fishing vessels are already Indonesian fishermen, key positions such as the master fisher (vessel skipper), master engineer and purse seine head are still filled by Filipinos.

It was not clear if those with existing licenses and investments will be covered by the new Indonesian fisheries policies.

After a rebound in local catch last year, another bleak future awaits Filipino fishermen.  Here they wait in almost empty docking facilities at the General Santos City fishport complex.Pic: Edwin Espejo

After a rebound in local catches last year, another bleak future awaits Filipino fishermen. Here, they wait in almost empty docking facilities at the General Santos City fishport complex. Pic: Edwin Espejo.

BFAR director Asis Perez said the contracts entered into by Philippine tuna companies and the Indonesian government are private in nature.

He said they should seek legal remedies if the changes in the Indonesian fisheries policies will affect their operations there.

“We can only help them if they approach us, but they have to disclose the terms of their contract,” Perez said.

He emphasized that the Philippine government cannot interfere with the policies of an independent state.

Perez, however, said the Philippines will adopt a different approach on individual fishermen caught foraying into the fishing grounds of Indonesia.

“We will protect our fishermen and will make sure they will not engage in illegal fishing not only in our country but anywhere else,” he explained.

He also prefers that the Philippines follows the track of Thailand.

“It is better that we become importer of frozen tuna than being caught illegal fishing in other countries,” he added.

The Philippines currently ranks 2nd to Thailand in terms of volume of canned tuna production with a daily average of 850 metric tons or an annual output of 220,00 metric tons.

The country earns an annual gross receipt of more than US$250 million in canned and processed tuna exports.

The  tuna industry is estimated to be contributing more than US$350 million in the gross domestic product of the country.

General Santos is home to six of the country’s seven operating tuna canning plants and is the country’s acknowledged Tuna capital.

Almost 70 percent of the country’s total tuna catch is landed in General Santos City and almost all canned and processed tuna is shipped out from the southern port city.

Perez said current world leader Thailand does not have its own tuna fishing industry and relies solely on imports for its cannery requirements.

Production drop

In a related development, total tuna landings in General Santos City dropped dramatically in January and February this year, which local tuna producers blamed to the mild El Niño phenomenon.

Data for total local fish landings for January and February this year showed only 11,470 tons, a very steep decline from the 31,277-ton production in January-February 2014.

2014-2015 comparisonThe figure represented a 63 percent drop in landings over the same 2-month period.

While January and February are traditionally lean production months, it was the first time in 12 years that overall fish landings went down by 22 percent over a previous year total.

Most fishermen here come home for the Christmas holidays and do not return to the high seas until after the January 15 Feast of the Holy Infant Jesus, the patron saint of the tuna industry.

But General Santos City fishport manager Custodio Balaoing Jr said the ‘weak’ El Niño is the main factor behind the recent decline in fish landing.

Over the same period, frozen tuna imports went up from 18,447.11 tons to 27,242.38 tons or a spike of 48 per cent, however.

2014 jpegLast year’s total frozen imported tuna reached 92,387.36 metric tons or an average of almost 8,000 tons a month.

For the first 2 months of 2015, canneries here have already imported 27,242.38 metric tons for an average of 13,600 tons a month.

Last year, more than 50 percent of the requirements of tuna canning plants here were already frozen tuna imports.