INQUIRER SOUTHERN LUZON

Giving Tiwi’s small fishermen a hand

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TUNA is sustaining fishing communities along the Lagonoy Gulf. PHOTO COURTESY OF WWF CORAL TRIANGLE

“The most important thing we learned is quality,” declares Andres Dacullo in Bicolano. The fisherman from Barangay Putsan in the municipality of Tiwi, Albay, is talking about tuna, an important marine resource in these rich fishing grounds, and how he and his fellow fishermen have learned that it’s not about how many fish you catch but how good a fish is.

“Before, we would catch one, two, three, and we still wouldn’t be happy. Now, we have learned that with one good Grade A fish, you can set out early and be home by 10 in the morning, and you can earn more. Making P170 a kilo is certainly better than making P100,” says Dacullo.

It’s good news when any fisherman is able to earn more by fishing in a more sustainable way. It’s even better news that Dacullo and his comrades are all artisanal, hand-line tuna fishermen who are sticking to traditional ways, with help from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an enlightened local government, and private funders helping the fishers bring their catch to a higher value market—and inevitably changing their lives.

Tiwi is the showcase site for the Partnership Programme Towards Sustainable Tuna (PPTST), a collaboration established in 2011 among the WWF and private partners under the WWF Coral Triangle Program and focusing on tuna fishery improvement in the Lagonoy Gulf. The project is funded by the German Investment and Development Agency (DEG), with support from Bell Seafood, Coop Switzerland and Sea Fresh.

More fisheries value

“The project is not looking just at resource management but at putting value into the product and encouraging fishermen and fish processors to put more value into the fisheries,” says Jose “Jingles” Ingles, Tuna Strategy Leader of the WWF Coral Triangle Program. “For individual fishermen, if we look at improving the quality of the fish, this translates into a doubling of the amount of money they will take home.”

Currently, only about 20 percent of the tuna from the Lagonoy Gulf is Grade A, explains Ingles; the project’s goal is to kick this figure up to 70 percent. “That difference is significant enough to convince a fisherman to get just one fish instead of two or three. In that way, the fishermen themselves help in the conservation and management of resources.”

Such prudent management of resources has become an urgent matter in the Coral Triangle, the global center of marine biodiversity that encompasses the waters of six countries—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste—and where the Lagonoy Gulf’s rich fishing grounds are found.

Covering some six million square kilometers and providing home and marine-based livelihoods to some 125 million people, the Coral Triangle is also the spawning grounds for four species of tuna caught in the important fishing area of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO)—yellowfin, albacore, bigeye and skipjack. The WCPO provides half of the global supply of tuna, an irreplaceable and affordable protein source for people all over the world.

Biggest threats

Today, however, depleting tuna resources are among the biggest threats facing the Coral Triangle, alongside such issues as accelerating climate change, a burgeoning live reef food fish trade, and shrinking populations of charismatic marine species, such as turtles. Between 1950 and 2006, a mind-boggling 27.5 million tons of tuna were caught in the Coral Triangle by commercial fishers, and the demand is not letting up, as more and smaller fish are leaving the ocean faster than the species can reproduce.

“The two biggest threats to tuna stocks and health worldwide are overfishing and the catching of juvenile tunas,” Ingles says. “For overfishing, we simply have to reduce the number of boats. Tunas are caught way before they can get to optimal sizes. I estimate that 300,000 tons of juvenile tuna are caught annually in that region. That’s a lot!”

As early as 2009, two sites in the Philippines had been identified for tuna fishery improvement: Occidental Mindoro and the Lagonoy Gulf. The latter has provided optimum opportunities, however, to implement the WWF’s thrust.

Among the organization’s strategies for better tuna management are:

Looping in global tuna traders to support fisheries.

Establishing ecosystem-based fisheries.

Eliminating illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing from the supply chain.

Enlightening consumers to allow them to make the right choices in their seafood purchases.

Offering fishermen incentives for sustainable fishing, such as certification by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

The MSC is the independent UK-based nongovernment organization behind what is considered to be the gold standard in wild-caught fishery certification, putting labels (and creating a premium) on retail products to encourage consumers to buy more sustainably caught seafood, thus paving the way for market-driven changes in worldwide fishing practices.

The PPTST funders include retailers who supply several European countries. Most significantly, the project proponents have found a willing and able partner in the local government of Tiwi; Ingles unequivocally calls Mayor Jaime Villanueva a “champion” for the fisheries development cause because Tiwi had already laid the groundwork many years before the project.

Fishing in Tiwi

Tuna fishing is a main livelihood in Tiwi, a municipality of 25 barangays, of which 12 are coastal and where 321 of 585 registered fishermen catch tuna across 60,000 hectares of municipal waters. Also, it is a place where illegal fishing practices used to abound.

“Before the establishment of the Municipal Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council (MFARMC) in 1991, every day was like a fiesta with fireworks,” says Tiwi municipal agricultural officer Leonila Coralde. “You would hear the constant explosions from rampant dynamite fishing. We used to have such beautiful hard corals, but people would get them, paint them, put them in pots and sell them in the market as decorations. Nobody was aware of any legal aspects.”

Even before he became mayor, Villanueva had already facilitated the creation of a marine sanctuary; after his election, he set to work policing illegal fishing practices by establishing an active Bantay Dagat (coastal patrol), after local fishermen had approached him to complain of the damage more irresponsible fishermen were causing with dynamite and cyanide.

“We had to explain to them that what we were doing, all these new rules—this was not for us, but for them,” Villanueva says.

When fishermen began catching and earning more after unsustainable practices were dramatically curbed, the change in attitude became evident.

“It’s like my heart grows bigger when I know I have helped stop illegal fishermen, and our own fishermen’s catch is increasing,” says Jose Condat, leader of a fishermen’s association and Bantay Dagat volunteer from Barangay Putsan, Tiwi. “That is my goal—to stop them so we can protect our resources for our own children and grandchildren.”

“They saw that they were suffering because of the way they were abusing the ocean,” adds Coralde. The dire situation was further highlighted in the aftermath of Supertyphoon “Reming” in 2006, which leveled Tiwi, destroying fishing boats, blowing down houses, and leaving the fisherfolk with very little to eat. “That’s when they understood that they had to be responsible for nature, and that was the beginning of their change of heart.”

Fishing licenses

An important step that left little room for IUU fishing in the system was Villanueva’s move to register and license all of Tiwi’s fishermen.

“Our first agenda was to put the fisheries on the path of sustainability, which means we needed to put the fisheries within the framework of the law,” Ingles explains. “Most, if not all fishing boats and fishermen here, were not licensed, so the first step was to make them legitimate, legal fishermen, because being legal means that you can be allowed to export your product to the United States and Europe.”

Indeed, Villanueva has his eye on just such a market. “That is our goal—to be established, to be MSC-certified so we can export Tiwi tuna to other countries and find a stable market for our fish.”

The eventual target, as written among the project’s goals, is an MSC certification.

In line with yet another goal of making local fisheries compliant with international safety and hygiene practices, the local government is investing in infrastructure for a centralized casa or landing house, complete with cold storage and weighing facilities.

Jun Kallos, a tuna buyer and financier in Barangay Sugod, Tiwi, recalls how he used to transport the tuna via hired tricycles to his buyers. Today, Kallos drives a small utility vehicle he was able to purchase from his earnings.

Active dialogues and information campaigns among the fishermen have borne fruit. As of April this year, 165 (or 51 percent) of Tiwi’s tuna fishermen had been licensed, and 124 (or 54 percent) of tuna fishing vessels had been registered. Any vessels not properly numbered (the boats are color-coded) or registered are automatically escorted out of municipal waters by the Bantay Dagat.

Tuna quality improvement workshops have also taught fishermen how to grade their own catch, so they are not left at the mercy of unscrupulous middlemen who undervalue the produce.

Next in the pipeline is a proposed electronic catch documentation system that will record how much fish each fisherman has caught, where and when, that will provide accurate information and baseline data on fisheries “which can be the basis for any decision-making,” says Ingles.

Still, beyond the cooperation among stakeholders, the initiative of private funders, and the empowerment of the fishermen themselves, what could be most remarkable about this project is the fact that an efficient, workable and lucrative system is slowly being built around what must be the most environmentally sound method of catching fish on the planet.

“Hand-line fishing has always been the way we did it in Tiwi,” Villanueva says. “It’s just a matter of continuing to do it, and not giving it up.”

“It is one of the most ecologically friendly fishing gears we know,” Ingles says. “It’s a very, very sustainable way to fish, one fish at a time. Other fishing gears cannot match that. Plus, even the poorest fisherman can afford it, and that is very important for places like the Philippines or Indonesia or Papua New Guinea. We have millions of small-scale fishermen, and catching tuna using small-scale handline is an equalizer to address poverty.”

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