The Philippines already lost at least P3.5 billion worth of marine catch from the unyielding presence of more than 200 Chinese militia-like fishing vessels in the West Philippine Sea, according to a former top official of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).
Asis Perez, a former BFAR director who is now a convener of the agricultural and food safety advocacy group Tugon Kabuhayan, said the Chinese vessels might have already caught at least 54,984 metric tons of fish since the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) first reported their sighting in March.
The haul translates to losses valued at P3.49 billion, Perez said.
Bigger than BFAR vessels
The 237 Chinese vessels, estimated to be 60 meters long with a likely capacity of 700 gross tons, are bigger than the BFAR’s multimission offshore vessels. Following the basic rule of fishing operations, Perez said the ships must catch at least 4 to 5 MT of fish to break even or at least recoup their operational costs.
“[China] needs to catch at least 4 tons [of fish] every day per vessel to make economic sense and recover their operations and maintenance costs, including their investments. That is a very conservative estimate … that is the losses we incur because these areas are within the country’s exclusive economic zone, meaning Filipinos are entitled to that catch,” he said.
The national task force for the West Philippine Sea had earlier said the Chinese vessels were harvesting one ton of fish every day. The estimate may not be accurate and is incompatible with the vessels’ capacity, although Tugon Kabuhayan said this would still result in losses of P720 million a month.
To date, the Chinese ships have been in Philippine waters for 56 days since PCG reported their presence two months ago.
According to the BFAR, the Philippines gets about 7 percent of its annual fisheries production from the West Philippine Sea. The shallow waters near Spratly Islands are considered one of the most productive, allowing enough sunlight to pass through and absorb a lot of nutrients, and nurturing a very diverse marine ecosystem.
Asis said the BFAR’s estimate only covered the volume of fish that Filipinos were able to catch from the area and did not include the spawning grounds, coral reefs and marine species in the thriving ecosystem. He noted that the West Philippine Sea’s potential was far greater than the government agency’s statistics.
A study of the late National Scientist Edgardo Gomez, a marine biologist who was among those who sounded the alarm for the environmental impact of China’s reclamation activities in the West Philippine Sea, valued the reef ecosystems in the area at $350,000 per hectare.
About 1,214 ha of coral reefs have already been damaged by illegal fishing, dredging and reclamation activities, bringing annual losses to P20.4 billion on top of the P3.5 billion worth of fish illegally caught by the Chinese, recent studies showed.
The continued presence of Chinese vessels and coastguard has forced more than 1,500 fishermen in Masinloc, Zambales, to desert Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, which for decades served as their traditional fishing ground.
“Our Filipino fishers are the ones facing headwinds in this issue,” said conservation group Oceana Philippines. “Their livelihood is affected by the legal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities in the area.” INQ