ANALYSIS: Where have all the fishes gone?

Jose Galang — Your Business

Posted at Nov 10 2017 03:48 PM | Updated as of Nov 10 2017 04:33 PM

A curious item in this week’s inflation rate report for October stood out for its puzzling rate of price increase. Of all the products in the food basket used by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) in tracking inflation, fish registered the highest rate of increase: 9.5 percent overall, compared to the 1.1 percent to 5.8 percent noted in the other food items—and there was even a 3 percent drop in the “sugar, jam, honey, chocolate and confectionery” products.

In Metro Manila, the rate of annual fish price increases in October was recorded at 11.5 percent. Double-digit increases were also seen in five other regions across the country, with Bicol experiencing the highest at 14.3 percent. In the Negros Island Region, known for its seafood products, fish prices were up by 13.1 percent in October.

In Manila public markets, the price of galunggong (roundscad), not too long ago referred to as “the poor man’s fish”, now ranges from P120 to P150 per kilo. Another widely consumed fish variety, tilapia, costs around P100 to P130 a kilo, while bangus (milkfish) is priced around P100 to P140 a kilo.

Fish is an important part of the Filipino diet. More than half of the animal protein we consume comes from fish. Any increase in fish prices in the magnitude of recent upticks, therefore, is bound to eat into the family budget in a big way. Around 40-45 percent of middle-class household expenses goes to food.

Shrinking production

One explanation for the steep fish price increases is the decline in fish catch over the past years—with lower supplies, vendors tend to raise prices since demand will always be there. In 2016, according to the PSA’s Fisheries Statistics, fisheries production totaled 4.36 million metric tons, down from 4.65 million in 2015 and from 4.69 million in 2014.

In the first half this year, total fisheries output came to 2.13 million tons, a decline of 0.2 percent from the same period last year, although most of the increase happened in the first three months of the year and was nearly erased by a slower production in the succeeding three months.

In terms of contribution to the economy, fishing’s share of gross domestic product (GDP) has been on a downtrend for nearly two decades now. In the first six months of this year, for instance, the total value of fishing production in real terms amounted to P54.15 billion, down from P54.63 billion in the same period last year and from P57.84 billion in 2015.

Back in 2010, fishing contributed P136.5 billion to the annual GDP. This has since fallen gradually, hitting just P122.95 billion by 2016. If the value of fishing production in the second half of this year simply equals the amount in the first half, the total value for the full year will approximate the level recorded 13 years ago.

Fishery resources are ‘vast’

What gives? The Philippines, as an archipelago of more than 7,100 islands, has over 2.2 million square kilometers of seas known to have vast fishery resources. Said to have the highest marine diversity in the world, the Philippines was 11th among the world’s top fish producing countries in the early 2000s.

The culprit, according to fishery officials and scientists, could be the history of unbridled overfishing and use of techniques now banned by the national government and localities, along with the effects of climate change on fish movements. But some analysts also attribute part of the problem to poaching on local waters by foreign groups.

In the latest PSA report on the fisheries sector, fish catches by commercial and municipal fishers all registered declines in the second quarter of this year. Only aquaculture, says the report, managed to pull up its output.

By species, roundscad posted the biggest rate of decline, by 19.4 percent from year ago to a volume of 59,000 metric tons in the second quarter. Yellowfin tuna production was 17.6 percent down at 24,600 tons, frigate tuna also by 17.6 percent to 35,000 tons, indian sardines by 12.7 percent with volume at 91,000 tons, and tiger prawns by 14.6 percent to 12.38 metric tons.

Among the better-performing aquaculture varieties, bangus production was up by nearly 9 percent at 110,000 metric tons in the second quarter, and tilapia output rose by 6.6 percent to 84,000 tons.

There was an overall 11.9 percent decline in commercial fisheries “due to less unloading of species in the Navotas Fish Port brought about by an occurrence of frequent rains that hampered fishing operations in surrounding marine waters of Antique, Bataan, Zambales and the Visayan Sea,” says the PSA report.

Getting fewer

At several of the fishing grounds around the archipelago, fishers reported “less appearance” of popular species. Such was the case with roundscad in the fishing towns of Calabarzon region. In South Cotabato, “scarcity of species” was encountered by yellowfin tuna and big-eyed scad fishers, and in Bohol and Palawan, fishers also reported “lesser appearance” and “less occurrence” of indian mackerel.

Fisheries officials also noted that strict implementation of registration regulations on fishing vessels, along with “frequent rains” that prevented fishers from making more trips to their fishing grounds. In a few areas, unregistered vessels (mostly bancas) were even confiscated by local authorities, according to fishers’ accounts.

Government officials have been silent on the reported sightings of large Chinese fishing ships near certain productive locations in the South China Sea (also called the West Philippine Sea). Chinese coast guard boats escort these fishing ships, according to the reports.

The reported sightings of Chinese fishing boats near Philippine fishing grounds tally with similar experiences of fishing industries elsewhere, including African nations where Chinese boats have been the subject of “illegal fishing” complaints.

If this pattern continues, the galunggong will not only become a lot more expensive, it may eventually disappear from the poor Filipino’s dinner table.