30 °C Manila, PH
2nd December 2023

Fish Are Not Forever




Global population rises as seafood stocks plummet. As the world gradually listens to clamor for sustainability, will better branding and improved traditional fishing methods solve the food security crisis?


fish-headsIt’s difficult to imagine why environmental groups lobby for sustainable fishing when 75 percent of the world is inhabited by fish. In the Tuna Capital of the Philippines, though, the reality that the sea is not eternally generous has already sunk in. General Santos City saw tuna stocks declining in the first decade of the millennium.


The seas have seen better days, and it’s most likely to stay that way for a long time if conditions continue, said environmentalists.


No, the sea will not likely run out of fish soon, if you take questions by critics in the literal level. The issue, however, becomes an urgent matter specifically for biodiversity – whether one species will still survive the next decade if wild-caught harvesting were to continue. In the bigger picture, unsustainable fishery badly affects global food security. Fish is one of cheapest sources of protein around for a developing nation and an archipelago such as the Philippines. This means that when fish stocks plummet and prices skyrocket subsequently, it affects not only your menu prices but largely Filipinos who depend on seafood for daily survival.


The decline of tuna in Mindanao implied that a mere hunting strategy will not do. As the population rises exponentially, relying on an ocean that doesn’t expand nor increases the total catch can instigate a food crisis in the future. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that fish consumption rose from nine kilos per capita in 1961 to 16.5 kg in 2003. In 2011, it was 17 kg per person annually, reported the BBC.

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But supply hasn’t caught up with the demand; in fact, supply is reportedly plummeting. Since 1974, the organization has been monitoring fish stocks around the globe and noticed that the proportion of moderately or underexploited fisheries continually declined from 40 percent in the first year to 23 percent in 2005. Overexploited or depleted fisheries around the globe account for more than 75 percent of the total where FAO statistics is available.


“The most important solution is to reascribe value to more common species to alleviate pressure on endangered stocks,” said Gregg Yan, communications officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Philippines and a proponent of the fund’s Better Choices in seafood. The program is a media-driven campaign promoting sustainable alternatives for seafood to consumers in the Philippines. Instead of consuming endangered species like the Red Grouper, it asks consumers to choose herbivorous and aquacultured fishes. Herbivores tend to reproduce faster and are said to be least costly to tend to.


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Beyond this advice, consumers in the Philippines will find it difficult to support sustainable fishery without eco-labeled suppliers. As of this writing, no Filipino producer has yet been given a stamp by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, an international organization that certifies sustainable aquaculture ventures. Its equivalent in marine fishery, the Marine Stewardship Council, has only certified one Philippine supplier who sells sustainably caught fish.


The problem with wild-caught fishing sea is similar to why timbers must be replaced or hunting season rules are enforced. Authorities like the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) have tried to limit fish production. But Yan hinted this still doesn’t solve the problem of by-catch; more than half of a typical ship’s catch are not meant to be caught. When the bycatch are returned to sea, they are mostly dead because of the pressure inside nets, he said.


In the supplier front, WWF developed the circle-hook as a more discriminating yet simple technology for ordinary fishermen. With 144,000 deployed nationwide, it decreases mortality of sea turtles by 90 percent but still effectively catches big fish such as the Yellowfin Tuna.


The organization works in three major regions, Ilocos Norte, Bicol, and Mindoro, to introduce the C-hook and instruct fishermen of how to properly handle tuna meat. Basic handling, such as placing the fish inside a box of ice and water instead of having it lie down on the boat’s floor after being caught, can increase its meat grade significantly. The NGO coordinates with WWF-Germany to export A-grade tuna to Europe. “We want our fishermen to go out, catch a small number of tuna, and make more money out of it,” mentioned Yan.

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BFAR has its own sustainable seafood program aided by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Meanwhile, marine protected areas that ban or limit fishing are scattered across the Coral Triangle – one of the most bio-diverse marine area in the world.


As another practical solution, WWF hopes aquaculture will be extended to marine fish albeit species like tuna cannot survive in cages. In Quezon, Palawan, a WWF-assisted aquaculture program of the Red Grouper, a marine fish, is gaining steam. Yan said more advanced technology can make this a bigger success. Yet even aquaculture can be unsustainable. Overpopulation in natural aquaculture pools has reportedly depleted the oxygen levels to such a degree that it led to economically and ecologically disastrous fish kills such as the case of Taal Lake.


Clearly, much has to be done, but conservationists are fully convinced that sustainable seafood is the version of clean energy in today’s petroleum oil-hungry world. Inevitably, the old ways will make way for the new; it’s just a matter of sailing forth until it gets there. –Tweet your thoughts: @PaoAbellanosa @HNMPhilippines





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