The Destruction of the Philippine Tuna Industry

(Edwin Espejo, a journalist and blogger for Asian Correspondent in the southern Mindanao city of General Santos City, was the first to break the story of hundreds of missing Filipino tuna fishermen, lost in the stories of other tragedies. This is excerpted from his original report.)

It is a mark of the Filipino preoccupation with its favorite son, welterweight boxer Manny Pacquiao, that television stations devoted a full half hour of news to his shock knockout by the Mexican boxer Juan Manual Marquez dominated the news.

Buried in the news later was the pain and anguish that are tearing apart families and loved ones of more than 300 tuna fishermen – from Pacquiao’s home town of General Santos City – who are still missing a week after Typhoon Pablo made a landfall. Many of the wives and mothers may be resigned to the fact that they will never see their loved ones again. Some 46 fishing vessels are reported missing and that may not be all. Some relatives said their kin hadn’t been registered as on the tuna boats.

The fate of the missing tuna fishermen has gone largely unnoticed, buried by the stirring images of Pablo’s victims in other parts of Mindanao. There are no bodies of dead fishermen to talk about, only few survivors to tell their harrowing ordeals. But as with relatives of the typhoon victims in Davao and Surigao, they also refuse to believe their loved ones are dead. Others who are willing to accept their fates want to give their dead a decent burial where they can pay homage.

The typhoon was predicted to make a landfall on Dec 3. On the morning of Dec. 4, worried ship fleet owners began spreading the news that they had lost radio communications with their catcher vessels.

The next day, Dec. 5, former fishermen’s association president Marfenio Tan told the Philippine delegation that six catcher vessels were confirmed missing and as many as 300 fishermen had been lost. Tan was making frantic calls to the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine Navy where he is a reserve commodore (a one-star rank general).

Tan was told that neither the coast guard nor the navy had the capability to launch a search and rescue operation so far away in such a wide area without imperiling the lives of their crew. At the time, the high seas in the area were still dangerous for light vessels. Coast Guard Eastern Mindanao chief Commodore George Ursabia said three of their floating assets were still on their way to Davao from Zamboanga while the Philippine Navy had already deployed a ship to begin the search rescue mission. But he said it wouldn’t be until Dec. 8 when the Philippine Navy ship would be anywhere near where the last sighting of survivors was reported.

However, he said three more bodies had been plucked out of the sea by a passing supply vessel F/B Atlantis. A couple of nautical miles ahead, the crew of the passing vessels found 13 survivors.

Perfect storm

It is easy to blame greed for the alleged failure of vessel owners to recall all their fishing fleets in the area or put the blame on the Philippine Coast Guard for allowing them to set sail even with the impending storm warning. But most of these fishing boats were already out in the open seas weeks before the storm developed into a super typhoon.

Medium-sized purse seines (the category of all of the missing boats) can stay up to six months in the open seas, regularly receiving fuel and food supplies from carrier ships. Nobody expected the storm to be the perfect one.

A survivor who did not wish to be named said waves more than three stories high slammed onto his outrigger handline tuna fishing boat. He refused to give further details, saying the tragedy that claimed some of his companions is still too grim to be retold.

Light boat operator Montgomery Montealegre, whose son Mark Gil is still missing, said their fish carrier loaded with fish left the mother boat (catcher vessel on Nov. 30) some 302 kilometers off Baganga. The mother boat owned by LPS Fishing was to follow the following day.

Montealegre reached the port of Mati on Dec. 2, expecting his son to dock in the same port for refueling before heading back to General Santos City the following day. They have not made it by Dec. 11, more than a week after Pablo made a landfall. He and his wife have been trekking daily to the command center of Task Force Maritime Search set up at the adjacent wing of the General Santos City Police Office in Camp Lira.

Tan said most of the missing boats were caught in the middle of the storm at dawn of Dec. 3 when most radio communications in their base companies were either unmanned or had been turned off.

Tuna handline fishermen Roberto Suarez, 45, of Mangagoy, Surigao del Sur is still very weak in the intensive care unit (ICU) at the General Santos City Doctors Hospital - his doctors refused a request for an interview.

Suarez was the operator of an outrigger boat with a crew of 12 others that included a son, a brother and a brother in law and several nephews. He lost younger brother Edgardo, according to the brother Gilbert who cannot seem to accept the fate of his missing sibling.

Roberto suffered injuries in his chest and right thigh. Dr. Mario Dideles said his kidneys shut down in the three days that he laid on a small fishing boat which his son found after the storm subsided. His kidneys are recovering but four of his fingers may have to be cut off due to gangrene.

Tan believed many of the fishermen, despite receiving advice to seek shelter, may have underestimated the wrath of Pablo.

306 missing and still counting

Task Force Maritime Search operations chief Cmdr Lued Lincunan said they have officially listed 306 fishermen missing from General Santos City and nearby Sarangani alone. Lincunan fears the number could rise as several complainants claimed to have relatives on board the missing boats but were not in the official list of crew members supplied by their owners. In addition, there are also reports of missing tuna handline fishing boats.

Lincunan also said most of the fishermen rescued by General Santos City-based fishing vessels were from Davao Oriental and Surigao del Sur.

The city social welfare and development office said at least 15 rescued fishermen were already sent back home. The white board inside the task force operations center has listed 6 already confirmed dead and only 4 rescued fishermen from General Santos City so far.

Lincunan said there have been reports of sightings, one by a tuna handline fisherman who said he saw a mother boat and a light boat between 3 to 4pm on Dec. 4, a day after the storm made landfall, buoying the spirits of relatives who are trooping to the operations since Day 1 hoping to hear any glimmer of hope from rescuers.

Lincunan said three Philippine Navy vessels are already scouring the areas where the missing vehicles last gave their coordinates. Two Islander planes from the Philippine Navy are also on reconnaissance mission searching for possible survivors.

“We are still on a search and rescue mission,” Lincunan said with cautious optimism.

Gingging Cabardos (husband Nestor Cabardos), Rubi Quelnat (husband Frederick), Maria Tarranza (brother Gener) were huddled together with Maria Fe Montealegre waiting for any hint of good news when this writer approached them just outside the operations center. They are praying all their husbands are still alive somewhere out there.