Balikbayan GG
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 31, 2018 - 12:00am

The Quezon coastline is one of the most picturesque in the country. The Sierra Madre mountain range overlooks the shores. Seafood grills thrive along the coastal road from Gumaca to Atimonan, where the shore is lined with mangroves. 

Those roadside restaurants are popular particularly because the seafood they serve is guaranteed to be freshly caught from the sea. At dawn and near twilight, the boats of local fishermen dock and unload their catch.

The waters are abundant with commercial fish species. Our archipelago of over 7,100 islands is blessed with rich marine biodiversity and teems with 2,000 species of fish, 200 of them of the commercial variety.

Small-scale fishermen sell their catch of high-end fish such as lapu-lapu (grouper), apahap (local sea bass) and pompano for a reasonable profit, and then take from their day’s catch or buy for their families’ consumption galunggong (round scad), a.k.a. GG.

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At P120 to P140 per kilo, galunggong is still the poor man’s fish. This is according to Peter Gonzales, a fisherman from Gumaca for several decades, who was forced by arthritic knees to retire from his life’s calling.

Gonzales now busies himself with his work as vice chairman of Pamalakaya, the organization of small-scale fisherfolk nationwide. He estimates that GG is regularly consumed by about 90 percent of the country’s “anak pawis.”

Pamalakaya is currently up in arms against the government’s decision to import galunggong for the wet markets for the first time since the 1990s (to Gonzales’ recollection).

The importation, Pamalakaya warns, could kill many small-scale fisherfolk. Last week the government approved the importation of 17 metric tons to bring down the price of galunggong, which has long been used as a gauge of the purchasing power of the poorest Filipinos.

Eduardo Gongona, agriculture undersecretary and director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), says the importation is meant to tide over regular galunggong consumers during the lean months when a fishing moratorium is observed as part of a program to rehabilitate fishing grounds.

But Gongona himself, who has relatives engaged in the fishing industry in General Santos City, believes importation is bad news for local food producers.

“For me, there is no food security in food importation,” Gongona told “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s One News channel.

Like farming, however, low earnings from fisheries have led to a fall in the number of fisherfolk. Gongona noted that the average age of Pinoy fishermen is now 57, with the number of youths taking fisheries courses also dwindling. If the trend continues, Gongona warned, the country would have no fishermen left in 10 years.

Gonzales, who was also our guest, said many fishermen have shifted to other sectors such as construction for their livelihood.

Compounding the falling number of fisherfolk are other factors that have reduced fish catch even in our islands blessed with rich marine life.

Gongona cited the impact of climate change, the fishing moratorium to rehabilitate fishing grounds destroyed by hulbot-hulbot, and the sheer weak capability of small-scale fishermen like Gonzales to catch the fish in municipal waters.

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The story of the hulbot-hulbot illustrates the complexity of this issue. As explained by Gonzales, the hulbot-hulbot – the Pinoy version of the Danish seine – is a shallow net about 30 meters wide. It has a rope about three kilometers long with weights made of plastic and metal chains, which allow the net to be dragged along the seabed.

Gongona said the government initially allowed the use of the hulbot-hulbot for commercial fishing. Only after several years – and complaints from small-scale fisherfolk and environmental advocates – did the government realize the damage caused by the nets to the seabed and the spawning grounds of fish and other marine life.

The small-scale fishermen, who nurture those spawning grounds in relatively shallow waters, complained because commercial fishing vessels began encroaching into municipal waters, and using the hulbot-hulbot to dredge the seabed.

How did the large fishing vessels enter municipal waters – an area legally defined to be five kilometers from shore? Because commercial fishing is allowed starting at seven fathoms (42 feet). Gonzales points out that much of the islands in our archipelago have a short tract of shallow seabed abruptly dropping precipitously to the depths less than five kilometers from shore. Commercial vessels enter those waters because they can, and the small-scale fishermen’s boats aren’t big enough to safely venture farther out.

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What can be done? Fisheries laws can be amended to allow small-scale fishermen to use bigger boats in municipal waters, to raise the carrying capacity from the current 3.5 tonnage to 5 so they can cover the five kilometers allotted to them. Penalties for illegal fishing can be increased. Gongona notes that under the law, those apprehended for illegal fishing can negotiate to pay just 30 percent of the P1 million fine. Large commercial fishing operators can shrug off a P300,000 fine, he pointed out.

In the meantime, to augment the fish supply and bring down prices, the government is importing GG. Gonzales says there is no guarantee that importation will bring down prices.

Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, who faced us yesterday on another episode of The Chiefs, stressed that the importation is only for the lean months of November to February. Small-scale fishermen, he argued, will enjoy long-term benefits from the rehabilitation of damaged fishing grounds.

Fisheries officials have said Filipinos could end up buying imported galunggong spawned in the Philippines anyway. Gongona explained that at a certain size, GG swims away from municipal waters and into the deep, where they are likely to be caught by the large commercial fishing vessels of other countries.

Since only Filipinos are known to eat galunggong, foreign fishermen sell the fish to the Philippines. This possibility is even more galling for small-scale fishermen.

Gonzales may have one less issue to worry about: galunggong importation may push through, but demand has been dampened by fears that the fish is balikbayan GG, made artificially fresh by the embalming fluid formalin.

Assurances from the government that GG imported from China, balikbayan or not, is free of formalin hasn’t eradicated consumer fears, especially because there have been similar formalin scandals in the past.

No one, however, can tell me of a foolproof way of identifying formalin-tainted GG. And shunning the poor man’s fish is a luxury that millions cannot afford. Including the small-scale fishermen of Quezon.

BUREAU OF FISHERIES AND AQUATIC RESOURCES MARINE BIODIVERSITY SIERRA MADRE
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