Rich Seas, Poor Fishers
The vast resources of the West Philippine Sea provide livelihood and food security, yet Filipino fishers who sail at these seas fend for themselves.
Lulu Ning Hui, 23 Aug 2021
Faith Jeruela is one of many fishers who braves the dark seas daily for their livelihood. The 24-year-old fisherman comes from a family of fisherfolk. His father, Sonny, is the captain of a motherboat, one of the large commercial fishing vessels in Masinloc, a municipality in the province of Zambales, the Philippines, where commercial fishing vessels carry tons of fish to shore daily.
Jeruela, on the other hand, is the captain of the lifeboat, a smaller boat that carries three fishers who remain in the fishing grounds. Every day, the motherboat comes to pick up their catch.
“There’s no sleeping when we fish. The lifeboat leaves at 8pm, and we wait for the fish to come during the wee hours of the morning because they appear at night after luring them with our flashlights. By 4:30am, that’s when all of us are awake to gather the fish and the whole process of catching fish lasts until 6am,” explained Jeruela.
When the waters are calm, those in the lifeboat would stay at sea for a week at a time, while the rest of Jeruela’s team — 20 in total — would travel to them on the mother boat every one or two nights to collect the catch.
“It takes two to four hours to reach the payao (artificial reef or fishing grounds), where the lifeboat is left to fish for a week. The motherboat comes to us every one to two days to pick up our catch,” said Jeruela, explaining their process.
Despite being established fishers in Masinloc, Jeruela and his fellow fishers do not own the motherboat they use, as only a small number of fishers in Zambales have their own vessels. They also do not receive any fuel subsidies from the government. Most fishers are employed on commission, based on their labor.
“It’s hard to save money to build a boat. A small one costs around PHP 50,000 (US$984) at minimum, and big vessels that reach the West Philippine Sea cost hundreds of thousands,” said Jeruela.
Although the father and son maintain their boats and decide on their fishing schedules, they work for people they refer to as “financiers”, private businesspeople about whom most fishers know little. They own the motherboat and pay for major fishing expenses such as petroleum, while Jeruela’s family owns the smaller lifeboat.
Jeruela fishes in the West Philippine Sea (WPS, part of the South China Sea, one of the most productive fishing areas in the world, responsible for around 12% of global fish catch.
Fishing plays a key role in the Philippine economy, especially for coastal communities living along its 36,289km coastline, the fifth-longest in the world, and employs 1.5 million people, contributing PHP 196 billion to the country's Gross Domestic Product. Of this, 20% comes from the WPS, which is under threat due to a territorial dispute with China.
When Filipino fishers spoke out about the challenges they faced due to the presence of Chinese vessels in the region, Harry Roque, the spokesperson of President Rodrigo Duterte, publicly disputed their claims, leading to an outcry from fishing groups who challenged Roque to sail with them to the contested waters.
“With Chinese vessels swarming our waters, it’s taking [away] the rights of our fishers to fish in those areas... that belong to our exclusive economic zone,” said Diovanie de Jesus Oceana’s Campaign and Science Specialist.
Unable to compete — or fish
Jeruela’s fleet used to fish at the disputed Scarborough Shoal back in 2016 but moved to fish at their payao in 2018.
Tensions between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea escalated in 2012 due to the increased presence of Chinese fishing vessels in Philippine waters, often intimidating or blocking Filipino fishers.
“We didn’t stop fishing at Scarborough because of the conflict, but simply because the owner suffered losses. Now we just fish at payao,” said Jeruela.
Back before the increasing tension, Jeruela recalled a more friendly relationship with Chinese fishers.
“They gave us vegetables in exchange for fish, and while we understand that the value of the fish is higher, we were also just being generous to our neighbor,” he said.
After fishing expeditions, Jeruela’s catch is bought by their employer — the financier — who then sells it in large fish ports in Manila such as the Navotas Fishport Complex, the oldest and largest fish port in the country, supplying fish to major markets in Metro Manila. Little to none of the fish they harvest will reach provincial markets or local fish landing sites.
Usually, commercial fishers like Jeruela catch a large amount of bonito (skipjack tuna) and galunggong (blue mackerel scad). Occasionally, they are able to catch more expensive fish such as salmon and yellowfin tuna.
Inside the boats, fishers are assigned with ranks and tasks divided among themselves. Payment varies based on their rank and amount of catch per trip. Because of this scheme, some fishers who aren’t well connected or equipped with large commercial vessels fish at municipal waters that extend 10-15km from the coast.
Income distribution among fishers
Bubble size represents the percentage of income. Mouseover/click to view details.
On good days, lifeboat captains like Jeruela can earn as much as PHP 38,000 (US$748) for a week of fishing, but, he says, this always depends on the weather. “The sea can get really dangerous at times. There are times when the waves are so strong and as huge as churches. The boat literally catches water and flips over and when that happens, we ask for the help of other fishers,” Jeruela said.
For Cesar Atijano, a Scarborough Shoal fisher from Santa Cruz, a municipality 49km away from Masinloc, fighting for the West Philippine Sea is essential.
“My equipment cannot compete with the Chinese fishers’ equipment. My boat is made of plywood, and it cannot be at par with their fiberglass vessels,” added Atijano.
His wife, although not a fisher like him, attends mobilizations in Manila on his behalf to express solidarity. Atijano works for a fishing company in Santa Cruz and his main income comes from fishing in nearby waters.
“Working as an independent fisher is especially harder now when the prices of commodities and tools for fishing are increasing. When I fish alone, I can earn around PHP 5,000 (US$98) for four days of fishing, but PHP 3,500 (US$69) of that just goes to fishing expenses. The increasing prices of fuel are taking most of my income,” explained Atijano.
Atijano can earn as much as PHP 35,000 (US$689) when he’s able to find a motherboat to travel together to Scarborough Shoal. He also recalled that before the territorial disputes, he and other Filipino fishers could enter the Shoal when there were typhoons.
“We used to easily take shelter inside the shoal when there were strong winds and waves, but now it’s hard to enter because there are Chinese fishermen guarding the entry when they are not allowed to control it as it is our territory,” said Atijano, referring to a 2016 ruling by an arbitral tribunal in the Hague.
“It saddens me that we can’t do much about it. Small fishers like me heavily depend on our seas,” he added.
According to a paper presented at the CNA Conference in 2015, because of generous fishing subsidies, China has been the world’s largest fish producer over the past three decades and the world’s leading fishery exporter since 2002.
However, due to overfishing in China's territorial waters and the deterioration of its marine ecology, the country introduced fishing bans in 1999, which extended to areas as far as the Scarborough Shoal off the coast of northwestern Philippines. Fishers limited by these measures were encouraged to venture farther, including to disputed waters in the South China Sea.
Chinese fishers also receive an additional fishing fuel subsidy called the Spratly Islands Special Fuel Subsidy, initially introduced in 1995, as an incentive to fish in the deep seas.
Annual catch of the major marine catch producers in the world
While the Asia superpower imposes fishing bans in their waters, it still ranks first in providing “harmful fisheries subsidies”, worth as much as US$5.9 billion according to a report from Oceana.
Isabell Jarrett, who heads a campaign by the Pew Charitable Trusts to end damaging fishing subsidies, told China Dialogue that leaders and ministers should make clear their commitment to ending harmful fishery subsidies. In 2019, a group of scientists published a global dataset on subsidies to the fisheries sector which revealed that $22 billion of the $35 billion of public money that went into fishing subsidies globally is harmful. Most went to increasing catch capacity.
For developing countries like the Philippines, where more than half of the population lives along the coast, coral reef fisheries play a critical role in progress and food security, yet fisherfolk have been suffering from consistent threats of fish depletion and poaching.
One thing that Atijano and Jeruela have witnessed is the poaching of giant clams, which are illegal to sell in the Philippines.
“The poaching of giant clams is not the only issue. When they are harvesting them, they are also destroying the habitat, scraping the ocean floor,” said de Jesus.
Daniel Ocampo, campaign director at Oceana Philippines, said that Chinese fishers are likely interested in the giant clams as a substitute for ivory, as carvings can go for more than US$100,000. The University of the Philippines Marine Science even has a campaign to conserve giant clams, as they serve as food and shelter for fish and other marine organisms.
The Central Luzon region of the Philippines, where Zambales belongs, ranked fourth in the Philippines for the most reported cases of Illegal Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, according to a 2021 USAID report. The monetary value the country loses to IUU fishing is enough to feed around 281 million Filipinos for an entire year.
This has impacted local fishers, like Atijano, who said that his catch has been declining over the past decade.
“The galunggong [blue mackerel scad] is our only hope. Most of the time, that’s the only kind of fish I’m able to harvest now, “ said Atijano.
Atijano can catch around 30-35kg of blue mackerel scad during a week-long trip, which are bought by buyers who sell the catch to big fish ports outside Zambales.
His livelihood could be further impacted by a recent move by the Philippines government to import as much as 60,000 metric tons (MT) of blue mackerel scad from China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Bobby Roldan, vice chair for Luzon at PAMALAKAYA, the National Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organizations in the Philippines, said that this move is only under the guise of food security, and will only further decrease the income of small fisherfolk as it would lower the buying price of local catch.
“Our fisherfolk can provide the food that we need, we’re a coastal country, and we don’t need to rely on importation. It’s just that they don’t have the same capacity to fish compared to foreign fishermen,” explained Roldan, adding that it’s alarming that Filipino consumers might have to buy imported blue mackerel scad, when these were potentially harvested in domestic waters by foreign fisherfolk.
Limited support from government
While commercial fishers like Jeruela and Atijano can earn tens of thousands of dollars on week-long trips, municipal fishers like Nicanor Mendez earn significantly less.
“My small boat can’t battle the waves and the rains from the monsoon,” said Mendez.
Mendez, who stopped fishing for 2 months due to strong waves, was slowly getting back to the sea in September, but Typhoon Conson and Super Typhoon Chanthu hit Cagayan and Isabela, which again prevented him from fishing.
Municipal fishers like Mendez can earn at most PHP 500 (US$10) a day, but usually, he earns just PHP 300 (US$6), and that’s without subtracting his expenses. He usually fishes for four hours, leaving the shore at 3am and returning home at 7am.
Mendez has been fishing since he was 12, and now, 46 years later, he notices that there are fewer fish to catch. He believes this is due to water pollution from destructive corporate mining in Zambales.
“I see the water turn red, possibly because of the nickel waste from the mining companies,” he said.
According to a 2019 report, Santa Cruz and Zambales, where Atijano and Mendez reside, lost over PHP 50 million from freshwater resources due to “adverse environmental impacts like siltation and dust generation” from mining operations, which contaminated waters and caused a loss of income. There was also a decline in deep-sea fish catch due to nickel laterite reaching offshore waters.
Mendez’ catch doesn’t reach Manila, and is only bought by buyers who bring it to the town’s market. Often, because of bad weather, he only fishes for his family’s sustenance.
“I’m a fisher, yet I can only afford sardines, because of how hard fishing has become.”
Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) director Commodore Eduardo Gongona said that they provided cash and food subsidies to marginalized fisherfolk in 2020. They also implemented livelihood interventions such as distribution of fiberglass-reinforced plastic boats, transport and logistics support, community fish landing centers, and post-harvest interventions. Based on the bureau’s data, 2,084 fisherfolk received cash and food assistance from the BFAR in Zambales.
However, according to PAMALAKAYA’s Roldan, these efforts aren’t felt by the most marginalized fisherfolk. None of the three fishing communities he frequents in Zambales received a single cent or subsidy for subsistence. Jeruela, Atijano, and Mendez also mentioned that they weren't beneficiaries.
“The Philippine fishing industry remains backward, and it is because it is heavily privatized with little state intervention,” said Roldan.
Joyce Sierra, communications manager at Oceana, said that Filipino fishers face two challenges when going to the sea.
“First, artisanal fishermen’s small boats aren’t equipped to go to farther territories. Second, despite unequal battlegrounds, they brave the seas to join the commercial fishing vessels to earn a little from a flawed commission system,” explained Sierra.
Roldan said that the Philippines, being a coastal country, has a lot of potential for its marine resources.
“The Filipino fisherman can be compared to a worker for a factory, except he sells his labor to catch fish in the sea. They are our food producers, but they don’t have a say on where to sell their food, nor can they dictate prices,” explained Roldan.
Roldan said the fishing subsidy Filipino fishers are calling for is uncomplicated, non-destructive, pro-people, and pro-environment.
“I hope the government could give us at least PHP 15,000 a reasonable amount to support basic fishing production, so we could do our livelihood without being indebted and in hunger,” he explained.
In the long run, Roldan said he hopes the Fisheries Code of 1998 will be scrapped and replaced with the Genuine Fisheries and Aquatic Reform Bill (GFARB) proposed by the worker and peasant partylist Anakpawis. According to Anakpawis, their proposed bill heavily promotes the country’s self-sufficiency for fisheries and aquatic resources, preventing the liberalization of the industry through importation.
“We can maximize the strengths of the Filipino fisher, feed the Filipino people, and protect our seas if we receive reasonable subsidies that will empower us to continue our livelihood while advancing a sustainable fishing industry centered on the welfare of the people and the environment,” said Roldan.
This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.
*Editor’s note: Isabel Jarrett works for Pew Charitable Trusts, the organization funding the Earth Journalism Network’s fisheries subsidies project, including this story grant.