Dar signs last-minute fish imports from China

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

For the third quarter in a row, Agriculture Secretary William Dar is importing fish from China. He invokes low domestic catch. Filipino fishers belie him.

The “midnight madness” goes on, laments Sen. Imee Marcos, head of the economic affairs committee. Co-terminus on June 30 with President Rodrigo Duterte, Dar reportedly is seeking reappointment under President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Dar authorized on Monday the import of 38,695 tons of galunggong (round scad), sardines and mackerel. Those 38,695,000 kilos will be retailed in public markets, to the detriment of local catchers and growers. A banyera (tub) of fish is 30 kilos.

Dar bypassed the multi-sectoral National Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council. The Fisheries Code requires the Dept. of Agriculture to consult that highest policy recommending body on matters affecting stakeholders. Dar’s import order was not tabled in the last NFARMC meeting on April 29, said NGO rep Dennis Calvan and commercial fleet rep Jaydrick Yap.

The 38,695 tons is the balance of the 60,000 tons that Dar authorized for import in 1st-quarter 2022. Commercial fleet owners, artisanal fishermen, tilapia and bangus growers, academics and NGO leaders in NFARMC had opposed that 60,000 tons to begin with. There was no fish shortage then, as now. But Dar invoked typhoon Odette damage in Visayas and Mindanao to bring in fish from China. “The fish are still in our seas,” remarked Sen. Cynthia Villar then as head of the agriculture committee. “Just help fishermen repair wrecked bancas.”

Dar also ordered 62,000 tons import in 4th-quarter 2021, invoking the yearend commercial fishing ban. Fleet owners, small fishers and growers recommended only 30,000 tons at most, but were ignored. Pens and ponds were brimming with tilapia and bangus for the Christmas season; rotational harvests were good for seven months, aquaculturist Norbert Chingcuanco recalls.

True enough, importers were able to fill up only half of the 62,000 tons. Still, Dar ordered another 60,000. Importers brought in only 21,305. Now he wants 38,695 tons more, supposedly because of the June-July fishing ban in the Davao seas. Two-month fishing bans have been in force rotationally for years in regional waters, without need for imports.

The South China Sea fishing season is December to June. Chinese poachers take advantage. In December 2020, thousands of Chinese maritime militia trawlers started trespassing the waters of Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. In March 2021, more than 300 were spotted massing at the Philippines’ Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in Pagkakaisa (Union) Bank. Reinforced by dozens more, they then spread out to Pagasa Isles and Recto (Reed) Bank, all within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Unprotected against Chinese gunboats, Filipino catch in the West Philippine Sea has dwindled.

Dar invokes slight increases in retail rates for his latest imports: bangus to P180 from P160 and Indian mackerel to P300 from P260 a kilo. But prices of tilapia, galunggong, sardines, bonito, tanigue and other varieties of tuna and mackerel remain stable.

Citing fisheries sources, Senator Marcos says soaring fuel rates are to blame for fish price spikes, not shortage.

Seafoods are imported at zero duties and taxes, says fleet operator and wholesaler Paul Santos. Only P500 per ton is collected as administrative charge.

Smugglers use fish as front in cargo containers for high-duty poultry, pork and beef. “The entry of chicken and meat at the piers is nonstop,” says Rosendo So, chairman of Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura.

Sugarcane planters are also groaning. The DA reportedly let in 200 containers of sugar for one drink company alone, in the middle of the milling season. The DA also allows vegetable and fruit imports. This breeds large-scale smuggling, injuring growers in Benguet, Central Luzon, Mindoro and Mindanao. Dar snubbed all three investigative hearings by the Senate Committee of the Whole on agricultural smuggling last March-April.

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