Filipino Tuna Industry Gets a Break

Philippine tuna producers can heave a sigh of relief, at least temporarily. The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission has decreed that the Philippines be allowed a limited number of fishing vessels in two pockets of Western Pacific high seas for at least a year even though several island-nations in the area were pushing for tighter controls.

These pockets of were closed to tuna and purse seine fishing for two years beginning in 2010. The area covers more than 306,000 square miles of open seas south of Micronesia and north of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea where more than 38 Philippine-flag purse seine fishing ships used to operate.

Although the vast Pacific supports a tuna fishery worth US$1.8 billion annually, accounting for a third of global catches, conservationists have repeatedly warned that five of the eight tuna species are at risk of extinction, with all three bluefin species – southern, Atlantic and Pacific – susceptible to collapse from overfishing. The International Union for Conservation of Nature study said seven of the 61 species of so-called “scombrid” or billed fish, are under severe threat.

It is a threat that has dire implications for the Philippine tuna industry, much of it centered in General Santos City at the southern tip of Mindanao island, which is acknowledged as the country’s tuna capital. The city is host to six of the seven tuna canneries in the country, with 120,000 residents directly or indirectly dependent on the industry. The country is the world’s fourth largest producer of fresh-chilled and canned tuna products.

In the early days of the industry, tuna could be caught just a little over 100 meters from shore off Mindanao. Today, the closest they can be found in volume is a good six hours from the coastal towns of Kiamba and Maasim. On a bad trip, three weeks in the open seas off Sarangani Bay will net a zero catch.

In 2011, because of the ban on the selected areas, total tuna landings at the General Santos City fishing port complex dropped by 21 percent, from 143,139.17 metric tons in 2010 to 112,891.81 MT last year. The volume of landings of mature yellowfin tuna has also been on a steady decline, from 33,369 MT in 2007 to a mere 9,061.13 last year.

The seas off Palau, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia are areas closest to the Philippines where local tuna fishing companies frequently operate and further south west off the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tuvalu, Nauru, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and parts of Kiribati.

Opponents of the ban argue that it has had an adverse impact on employment and the Philippine economy, especially in southern Mindanao. The opponents say they aren’t pushing for the resumption of so-called super seiners, 70-meter giants that can land up to 200 metric tons in a single catch by settling a large circular net around the school of fish, then pursing the bottom together to capture them. Those vessels are largely stationed in Papua New Guinea where two Filipino companies also own tuna separate canning plants.

The two-year ban has clearly left the Philippine tuna industry in a quandary, with some fishermen saying fishing must be curtailed to allow the fishery to regenerate, with others saying fishing must continue because of the threat to livelihoods. The volume of landings of mature yellowfin tuna has been declining steadily in any case from overfishing. Today more than 90 percent of raw materials for the city’s six canning plants have been sourced from either abroad or from Manila. Some industry figures have argued that the best solution would be for the government to pay to decommission some vising vessels to cushion the impact of a ban. One industry figure earlier estimated that the government would need to set aside at least P1.l2 billion (US$27.7 million) to pay to address the issue.

With the Philippine seas south of Mindanao already overfished, local tuna producers have looked beyond the country’s fishing grounds for their operations. In the 1990s, local producers began to open up operations in Indonesia and in Papua New Guinea. By the turn of the millennium, several Filipino companies had already put up canning plants in these countries known for their rich tuna fishing grounds.

But while production has declined, increased international prices of canned and processed tuna as well as fresh chilled yellowfin exports are keeping the Philippine tuna industry afloat. Over the last five years, the annual export earnings of Philippine tuna have remained within the range of US$280 million despite reduced production. Six years ago, before fuel costs skyrocketed worldwide, the average price of a box of skipjack was P600 (US$14) per 33-kilo box. In early 2010, it was US$48.

It is not yet clear how many of these Philippine fishing vessels will be allowed back in the contested area but industry sources in General Santos City say the lifting of the ban will benefit RD Fishing and Frabelle Fishing, two of the country’s largest tuna fishing fleets, which have already established bases in Papua New Guinea and have concession areas in Palau. The two Pacific Island nations are near these pockets.

Although the fisheries commission lifted the ban, it is still imposing a three-month suspension of each year on the use so-called fish aggregating devices, which draw fish to areas where they can be netted in large numbers. It also required all fishing vessels in the area to allow 100 percent observer coverage on board all purse seine operations.

The next meeting of the fisheries commission, a sanctioning body with 18 members and 33 participating countries, is to be held in the Philippines in December. The Philippines is a signatory to the conference.

(Edwin Espejo blogs for Asian Correspondent at Chronicles from Mindanao.)