Ignoring statistics, gov’t to import more fish

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources already erred last quarter.

It was then the onset of the yearend commercial fishing ban. Forecasting a 120,000-ton catch shortfall, BFAR recommended to import 65,000 tons.

Aquaculturists protested. They had enough tilapia and bangus (milkfish) in lake pens harvestable over seven months. Small fishers howled too; imports would depress prices of their meager catch. Commercial fishers, although prioritized to import during annual bans, sided with them. Together they estimated only 15,000-ton shortage in case of natural disaster, and counter-proposed only 30,000-ton imports.

Agriculture Sec. William Dar ruled to import 60,000 tons of galunggong (round scad), mackerel and sardines.

But what happened? Twenty-five importers were able to bring in only 37,000 tons. By Dec. 31 only 12,000 tons were released from refrigerated warehouses.

The small and big fishers were proven right. Only minimal imports were needed. Fish retail prices rose a bit with the Christmas demand, then dipped. BFAR had it all wrong.

But there it goes again. Early this month BFAR forecast a 125,000-ton shortfall in the first quarter. Reason: Super Typhoon Odette displaced thousands of small fishermen and destroyed fishponds in Visayas-Mindanao last Dec. 16. Proof: a P20-per-kilo jump in galunggong retail price in two city markets. BFAR claimed there is urgent need to import 66,000 tons. Not only galunggong, mackerel and sardines this time, but also bonito and tulingan varieties of tuna. That’s separate from stocks that seafood processors and canners are allowed to bring in year-round.

Jan. 12, BFAR called for an emergency meeting of the 15-man National Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council. Sole agenda the next day was the Certificate of Necessity to Import the 66,000 tons. NFARMC nixed any CNI. There was still 25,000 tons of fish in cold storage and 23,000 tons of last quarter’s approved quota to be filled in, it noted. Headed by the Agriculture Undersecretary for Fisheries with an Interior undersecretary, NFARMC consists of five reps from fisherfolk and workers; five from commercial fishers, aquaculturists and processors; two from academe and one from NGOs. It is the highest policy advisor to the Dept. of Agriculture. Nominated by industry associations, the 13 reps have three-year terms.

Jan. 17, Dar signed a CNI for 60,000 tons, and announced it the next day.

At once the fishing sector complained. Artisanal catchers cried that the combined import surplus from last quarter and the new volume would make them poorer than ever. Bangus and tilapia raisers groaned that their farm gate prices will drop below production cost. Commercial fleet owners were puzzled since the closed season is about to end.

Hog and chicken growers, vegetable and fruit farmers joined in. They, too, have been suffering from the influx of pork, poultry and produce from abroad. Why, they asked, was importation the government’s knee-jerk reaction to any food issue?

Dar didn’t make sense to them. The latter had claimed that fisheries had suffered P3.97-billion damage from Odette: “They are the number one sub-sector of agriculture badly hit by typhoon. The capacity of our fishers to catch will be in question. You have to enhance their capacities.”

How can imports enhance domestic capacity? Is not reequipping small fishers the solution to damaged gear? When Super Typhoon Yolanda flattened the Visayas and Bicol in 2013, then BFAR chief Asis Perez and private firms helped repair boats and distributed nets and handlines. When three typhoons successively struck the eastern seaboard in late 2019, Perez, back to his private conservationist advocacy, did the same under Tanggol Kalikasan (featured in this column at that time).

Is not enhancing capacity helping domestic fish raisers to lower production costs and increase harvest? Cheaper feeds and transport would boost their incomes and encourage expansion.

Is not enhancing capacity protecting Filipino commercial fishers against Chinese armed poachers in the West Philippine Sea? Luzon fishers are being driven away from Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank by Chinese coastguards with machine guns and water cannon. In June 2019 a Chinese fisheries militia steel trawler rammed and sank an anchored Filipino wooden boat with 26 crewmen off the Mindoro coast. Last March-May, 330 Chinese militia vessels, each the length of two basketball courts, swarmed Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef and Kalayaan Islands, all in the Philippine exclusive economic zone. It’s BFAR, escorted by the Philippine Coast Guard, that should organize fishing expeditions in the EEZ. The Chinese poachers engage in illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing by the hundreds of thousands of tons (millions of kilos).

The fish that the government imports comes mostly from China. They’re likely stolen from Philippine waters.

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