Are We Running Out of Tuna? A Look at the Current Fishing Practices in the Philippines and the Rest of the WorldApril 28, 2014
Whether you’re worried about the melted polar ice caps drowning us, dying of dehydration once our earth runs out of water, or not being fit enough to survive a zombiepocalypse, our penchant for self-destruction has warned us of impending doom. Adding to the human race’s earth’s potential end is the depletion of our current food sources. Tuna is among the food types that could be lost in the far future if sustainable practices aren’t pushed for.
In her book, Philippine Tuna Fisheries: Yellowfin and Skipjack,” Marine Science PhD holder Virginia Aprieto begins on a rather grim note. Because over 70 countries harvest tuna, competition is stiff when it comes tuna fishing and selling. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations have tired to promote more “collaborative research and development efforts among tuna-fishing nations” for the better management of tuna resources in these seas, but these policies tend to fail because of economic and national interests.
Paul Greenberg has also started the conversation on sustainable fish management with his book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. The project began from his discovery that farmed seafood was just as prevalent as wild seafood in the marketplace. Farmed seafood is a cause of alarm for Greenberg, as he says that the choice of the United States’ domesticated “seafood” “will have huge ramification for our species and for the planet.” The four fish he zoned in on are salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna—what he describes as “the cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats of the sea.” As the demand for these fish grow, what consumers and scientists need to look at is how the demand can be met with sustainable practices.
Tuna sits at the top of the Philippines’ most abundant marine fish groups. For a few decades, starting in the 1940s, the world’s tuna catch was increasing rapidly each year. Aprieto’s work records that the world wide tuna catch went from an average of 300,000 metric tons in 1940 to an average 1.9 million tons in the early 1970s and then to 3.8 million metric tons in 1988. The Philippines ranked number 11 among the world’s top producing countries on the Fisheries Administrative Order’s (FAO) 2003 Fishery Profile. Fish is also considered the second staple to rice in our country—Aprieto reports that “56 percent of the total protein requirements of the Filipino family” come from fish.
The most abundant kind of tuna in our seas are skipjack and yellowfin juveniles (the smaller and younger versions of the said tuna species). They thrive along the Sulu Sea, Moro Gulf, and Celebes Sea by Mindanao island. The same FAO profile reports 39, 767 tons in volume for the municipal marine fisheries’ catch of yellowfin tuna in 2003. Skipjack has a reported 114,077 ton volume from the commercial marine sector in the same year. But even the catch rate of Philippine tuna began to decline in the late 1980s, reports the “Overview of the small pelagic fisheries,” so our own fishing companies expanded to international waters.
The importance of fishing as a livelihood, as a source of nutrition, and as an economy booster place tuna in a delicate situation: on one hand, the increasing stock enables better income for our fishermen. ABS-CBN’s Ron Calunsod reported that General Santos, the country’s official tuna capital, accounted for 40 percent of the fish unloaded in its seven major ports from 2008 to 2012. General Santos is also responsible for distributing its commercial fish catch to nearby provinces such as South Cotabato, Surigao, Cagayan, Bukidnon, and Davao.
On the other hand, however, the WPCPC’s policy brief entitled “The western and central Pacific tuna fishery: 2010 overview and status of stocks” warns that although “yellowfin, skipjack, and south Pacific albacore stocks are being fished at moderate levels and stocks are reasonably healthy,” limits on skipjack fishing need to be developed to keep the fish at its present healthy level. Both tunas are fished at sustainable levels, but skipjack stock is expected to decline given the present amount of the current catch. Skipjack swim along the Moro Gulf, Sulu Sea, Celebes Sea, and Davao Gulf. They are caught year round primarily through purse seines and ring nets with FADs. The future isn’t as grim for yellowfin tuna: the current sustainability level can last thanks to the spawners (spawning is how fish reproduce number being at an ecologically balanced level. But that doesn’t mean the current catch is being exploited: the WPCP’s report states that 81% of the overall yellowfin catch comes from the western equatorial Pacific. The large number removes the likelihood of increasing the catch in the future. For this stock to last, the WPCPC recommends maintaining the catch at its current level and not increasing it any further.
Given such predicaments predictions, it comes as no surprise that the FAO had to take regulatory measures to control tuna fishing. The Fisheries Administration Order (FAO) no. 236-2 banned the use of unauthorized fish aggregation devices (FADs) from July to October 2013. Unlike other countries, however, the Philippines was granted permission by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) to fish in the high seas pocket 1 area (HSP1). HSP1 was closed off for fishing two years ago due to the alarming decline in tuna catches. But even our country’s access comes with an even bigger challenge: Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) Assistant Director for Administrative Services Benjamin F.S. Tabios Jr. was quoted to say that “There are still no fishing vessels in the HSP1 as those vessels that use FADs or payao are still banned. All our 36 vessels are using payao.”
Eighty percent of the country’s total catch is from the purse seines, ring nets, and handline fishing methods. The commercial fishing industry completes 60% of its total catch with the purse seine alone. Purse seine derives its name from the circular net it forms around fish, thus “pursing” the catch underneath. The ring net is similar to the purse seine, as it also uses a purse line to close the catch below, but also employs a smaller mesh to concentrate the capture. Handline simply holds onto a single fishing line that extends deep into the ocean, and baited hooks or fishing lures are also attached to this line. In the Philippines, the purse seine method meets commercial catch numbers through the local FAD, payao. Payao is responsible for attracting skipjack and yellowfin tuna to aggregate in the net. This FAD removes the time spent searching for large schools or volumes of tuna, so both commercial companies and small-time fishermen can gain quicker and larger profit. This device is placed across known fish migratory paths; once the fish have come together, the net can be pursed to grab hold of the schools.
The recent order banning the use of unauthorized FADs like payao are necessary for controlling and regulating the catch of commercial and municipal vessels. The mentioned FAO report emphasizes that all the signs are indicating limits that will stop further growth to the industry. “The Philippines’ fishery policy has to focus on product value added and profitability rather than quantity output,” the report continues. Unfortunately or fortunately, our country has had this “limitation” coming. Aprieto’s book, which was published in 1995, has an entire chapter entitled “National Tuna Fisheries Development and Management.” Here she emphasized that there is very little of actual Philippine fisheries management. Exploitation has taken precedence over sustainability for the sake of socioeconomic benefits. But even socioeconomic benefits cannot last without taking into account long-term factors such as biological principles like population dynamics. The local fisheries also need a better understanding of how biology and socioeconomic aspects are interdependent, and lack an actual system for research and development in the fishing field.
Among all the fish investigated by Greenberg, he paints the bleakest picture for tuna. “What is clear is that Atlantic Bluefin tuna is in trouble,” he said. This was his reaction to the 2010 Convention on International Trade in Endagnered Species (CITES) failure to pass a global ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna. “Nearly all tuna spend time in what’s called the ‘high seas’—international waters that are owned by nobody and everybody. Currently sustainable management of the high seas, and the highly migratory fish that travel (with) them just isn’t working,” he explained. Although Bluefin tuna has the sooner likelihood of being extinct, Greenberg stressed that the other “economically important fish” such as yellowfin, bigeye, and albacore, are out there as well in the high seas. “All of them fall under the aegis of similar management institutions that are stewarding over the collapse of the Atlantic Bluefin tuna.” Tuna’s spread out location thanks to its migratory patterns puts it at a higher risk as well: “(The future) is trickier with fish like tuna that roam international waters. No one owns the high seas and so it’s hard to get people to agree, internationally, that fishing should be cut back. I honestly couldn’t make any predictions about the long-term future of the tunas,” he admitted as well in the same interview.
The future will depend on how concerned the major players are for our future. Sustainability is a tricky word as it demands not only a balance in the economy, but also in how the world runs itself through its different organisms and processes. The last study on closing the high seas pocket by the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) reports that the 2010 skipjack catch was the second highest number to be recorded at 1,706,166 mt. The conclusion drawn from this increased catch was that closing the area is not enough action, but there is also a need to consider displaced fishing effort. Outside organizations alone cannot sustain the nearby high seas for us; the government needs to apply the appropriate research and allocate the funds for a sustainable future.