December 12, 2022
MANILA – Considered among the poorest in society, fisherfolk will finally get a shot at being lifted out of poverty after decades of government neglect. The National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) approved last month an P11.2-billion seven-year project that aims to better the lives of some 350,000 Filipinos in 24 coastal provinces. Called the Philippine Fisheries and Coastal Resiliency (FishCoRe), it is expected to start in early 2023 and will be funded mainly by a P9.6-billion loan from the World Bank (WB). The government will shoulder P660.6 million through the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA-BFAR), the project’s main implementor, while the remaining P1.16 billion will come from private sector partners and beneficiary groups or cooperatives.
President Marcos Jr., who sits as Neda Board chair, has noted the timeliness of the project and how it can help reduce the problem of overfishing. “For some reason, aquaculture is not flourishing, it’s not being developed,” Mr. Marcos said during his meeting with Neda officials in November. “That’s why this is important for me. It will give very good income for our fisherfolk.”
According to the DA, BFAR has divided the Philippine archipelago into 12 fisheries management areas (FMAs), where the department will “implement area-specific policies and initiatives to sustainably manage fishery resources through a science-based and participatory governance framework.” The project will be implemented in FMAs 6 and 9 that cover 11 regions and 24 provinces, with a total area of 32 million hectares of coastal and marine waters. It is projected to benefit 354,906 fisherfolk registered in those provinces, according to the DA. Covered under FMA 6 are the northern part of the West Philippine Sea, including the bays of Pagudpud, Subic, and Manila up to Lubang Island. FMA 9 covers the Bohol Sea and the bays of Panguil, Iligan, Gingoog, Butuan, and Sogod.
Improving production is half of the story in uplifting the lives of fisherfolk. The government also needs to address the other issue of adding value to marine products through processing, and marketing these at the maximum profit possible, for instance through exports. The country may end up having a lot of fish production with FishCoRe, but if the sector does not have the logistics for this output to be processed to add value to them or be brought to the right market, then wastage will be the result. It is important for the government to bring the private sector on board. “What is needed is to develop a policy framework that will ensure that the private sector will be inspired to invest, to put in the money so that the fisheries part of the economy is fully realized,” said Asis Perez, convenor of Tugon Kabuhayan and former head of BFAR. It’s sad that a unit of a big local conglomerate is doing profitable aquaculture operations in Vietnam that help fishermen there, when the government could have provided enough incentives for private companies to do the same here.
While the WB-funded project is a big step in developing the local fisheries sector, the administration and lawmakers should at the same time heed the call of stakeholders for the creation of a department to address the myriad issues plaguing the sector. Various fisheries groups last June asked the President, who is also concurrent agriculture chief, to certify as urgent a bill creating the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DFAR) to unlock the full potential of the sector.
Perez said they have been pushing for the creation of a separate department of fisheries but to no avail. Various bills were also filed in Congress to create a DFAR in the past yet none of them passed second reading. He said the establishment of a separate department will raise the allotted budget for the sector to P15 billion, or thrice the amount that BFAR gets from the DA’s budget. “Fishers, they’re like on the margin. So, there’s not much attention paid to them. That’s part of the reason why they want a separate department that can really pay attention to their specific interest, their needs,” added Edicio dela Torre, president of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement. He lamented how “overfished” our fishing grounds are and how “big international boats come and fish.” Galunggong that used to be the top fish that Filipinos consume has become the country’s top import, according to Dela Torre, adding that “they are frozen, and they are caught from our seas [by] Chinese fishing boats. They just reexport [our fish] to us.”
Addressing the production side through the FishCoRe project is one big step in the right direction toward uplifting marginalized fishing communities. The government, however, must at the same time address the important task of adding value by processing the marine catch and marketing these to foreign buyers through private sector participation. Only then will the project truly improve the lives of fisherfolk who have long been neglected by the government.