Philippine tuna:  The years of of abundance are now gone past.Pic by Edwin Espejo

Philippine tuna: The years of of abundance are gone. Pic: Edwin Espejo.

Dwindling stocks and increased enforcement of Indonesian waters leave Filipino fishermen fearing for their futures

GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines – Tuesday, January 27, was a lucky day for 40-year-old Wilson Manlunas.

His fishing crew of five just landed 10 pieces of yellowfin tuna which, if the quality is good enough, could gross them P100,000 (US$2,250) after a 10-day fishing venture.

Those kinds of days however are becoming few and far between.

If things do not turn out well for them this year, Wilson fears more and more small tuna fishermen like him could lose their livelihood and their future.

Ay, daghan na ang nangundang pagpanagat didto,” he lamented. (“Alas, many have stopped fishing in Indonesia.”)

For a veteran like him who knows no other job, he understands that unless something is done to protect his only source of income, he could join the ranks of unemployed in the city.

Not that they have not been repeatedly warned, but a renewed crackdown on illegal fishing in Indonesian waters is hurting not only Filipino tuna handline fishermen. It is also taking toll on local purse seine fishing operators and owners.

Big and small

Dexter Tan, marketing head of the family-owned San Andres Fishing Industry, said they have temporarily suspended fishing operations in Indonesia while waiting for clarification on recent fisheries policies of the Indonesian government.

He said four of their purse seine ships, are now docked in Indonesia and have ordered majority of their crew to temporarily come home.

Gusto nila (The Indonesian government wants) 100 percent Indonesian crew,” Tan explained.

Mayor Rivera however said Indonesia fishermen are not ready to solely man Filipino fishing vessels.

Philippine tuna landings reached 12-year record high in 2014.Pic by Edwin Espejo

Philippine tuna landings reached 12-year record high in 2014. Pic: Edwin Espejo.

“They (Indonesians) really need Filipino fishermen because they are not yet ready,” Mayor Rivera told the local ABS-CBN TV Patrol here last week.

Tan also said they could not yet entrust their ships to Indonesian crew. Sixty percent of the fishing operations of SAFI are now in Indonesia.

Others, like TSP Marine, Damalerio Fishing, SAL Fishing, RD Fishing, RLG and Fishing have invested heavily in manufacturing and processing plants in Indonesia top gain access to the latter’s fishing grounds.

“It takes special skills and experience for master and assistant master fishermen, chief engineers and net masters to be assigned in the hands of Indonesian fishermen,” Tan further explained.

Tan said 80 percent of their existing vessel crews are already manned by Indonesians.

He added that they have been compliant with all existing regulations imposed by the Indonesian government until a new policy was recently pushed by the new administration.

As of this writing, Tan said six other Filipino fishing companies operating in Indonesia have similarly ceased or scaled down their operations.

For their part, Tan pointed out that they have legitimate licenses to fish in Indonesian waters after a Filipino syndicated firm, which SAFI is a stockholder, bought the canning plant formerly owned by Purefoods Inc in Bitung, Indonesia.

Two other Filipino-owned canning factories are operating in Indonesia which allowed their stockholders, all of whom are owners of fishing companies, to fish in Indonesia waters.

The Filipino-owned tuna canning factories in Indonesia have been providing local employment and generating revenues for the Indonesian government.

Tan however also acknowledged that some Filipino purse seine operators have been illegally venturing into Indonesian waters.

Nevertheless, he believes they will be able to wade their way out of the tempest.

For now, frozen stocks can still help fill production requirements in Indonesia.

But it may not be for long.

That is why he sees negotiations and dialogues very soon.

No choice

For Manlunas, it is a matter of survival.

Wala mi choice. Wala nay isda sa sentro tungod sa kadaghan nga nagalagak,” he explained. (We have choice. There is no more fish in Philippine waters because so many have been casting their nets)

Many have taken the risk. Many, too, were arrested and jailed, some of them months on end – their boats confiscated.

Manlunas on fishing in Indonesia: "We have no choice."  Pic by Edwin Espejo

Manlunas on fishing in Indonesia: “We have no choice.” Pic: Edwin Espejo.

Like Tan, Manlunas said he too has permit to fish in Indonesia.

Handline tuna fishing is the least of concerns by Indonesian sea patrols.

Filipino handline tuna fishing is considered one of the most sustainable tuna fishing methods.

Using single line and single hook fishing gear, they seldom catch sharks and have never been known to regularly catch dolphins.

They cast their lines deep around fish aggregating devices (FADs or payaws) and have not been threats to population of juvenile tuna.

Discreet diplomacy

The local industry is not openly saying but all of  it members are hurting.

Late last year, following the election of Joko Widodo as president, the Indonesian government tightened its grip on illegal fishing in their territorial waters and fishing grounds.

Many Filipino fishermen, both legitimate and illegal, initially thought it would just be a passing fancy.

After all, the ban on illegal fishing and poaching in Indonesian waters has long been in place – right after Indonesia terminated its bilateral fishing agreement with the Philippines.

But when the Indonesian government began blowing up and sinking foreign fishing boats seized in their territorial waters, everybody is now taking notice.

General Santos City Mayor Ronnel Rivera.Pic by Edwin Espejo

General Santos City Mayor Ronnel Rivera. Pic:Edwin Espejo

This prompted the Socsksargen Association of Fishing Federations and Allied Industries (SAFFAI) to ask for a close-door meeting with General Santos City Mayor Ronnel Rivera.

“We held talks with the mayor. We agreed to keep a wait a see attitude and allow the national government to initiate dialogues and pursue negotiations,” SAFFAI executive director Rosanna Contreras said recently.

The city mayor could only advise federation members to put their concerns in a position paper to be submitted to the proper government agencies.

New paradigm

While commiserating with the plight of tuna fishermen, Director Asis Perez of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) said the situation is not entirely lost.

He said it is time for Filipino tuna fishing companies to tap into the Eastern side of the Philippine archipelago to expand their fishing operations.

“We have anchored hundreds of payaws in the seas off Davao Oriental up to Cagayan in the north,” Perez explained.

He also wants to see the Philippines eventually overtaking Thailand as the top canned tuna manufacturer in Asia.

“Our advantage over Thailand is that we have our own fishing grounds,” the fisheries director explained.

The country is currently ranked 2nd largest canned and process tuna manufacturer in Asia, next only to Thailand.

The Philippines is also strategically located along the tuna highway which runs through the Indian Ocean down the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.

tuna chart

Around 47 percent of the 2014 total fish landing of 193,867 metric tons in General Santos City were frozen tuna of which more than 70 percent came from foreign vessels.

General Santos City canning plants began importing frozen tuna in the mid-2000s.

Per official records of the Philippine Fishport Development Authority, frozen tuna have accounted for 53 percent of the total fish landings at the General Santos City fishing port complex.

Between 2008 and 20014, a total of 1,012,488 metric tons of fish – of which almost 89 percent are tuna – have been recorded in General Santos.

About 537,491 metric tons of figure over that period are frozen tuna.

Philippine canned tuna manufacturers have been relying on frozen imports and foreign ships for their canning materials. Pic by Edwin Espejo

Philippine canned tuna manufacturers have been relying on frozen imports and foreign ships for their canning materials. Pic by Edwin Espejo

Last year’s total landings of 193,867.55 metric tons were however the highest since 2003 with local fresh landings of 101,480.19 metric tons also a 12-year record high.

Perez said they will still have to determine the impact of renewed crackdown against illegal fishing by the Indonesian government.

He also insisted that it is not only Philippine tuna fishing companies that are operating in Indonesian waters, noting that the fishing boats that were blown up were owned by Malaysian and Vietnamese fishing companies.

In the meantime, local tuna fishing companies are crossing their fingers that last year’s record catch can still be maintained.