The Pacific's Imperiled Tuna Industry

In March, the commission that oversees the harvest of tuna in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean is to meet to decide whether to lift a two-year-old ban on fishing in one of the strategic migratory paths of the fish, which are declining in numbers as their value skyrockets.

The Pacific supports a tuna fishery worth US$1.8 billion annually that accounts for a third of global tuna catches. A single 278 kg Bluefin caught in the waters off northern Japan in January fetched a record US$736,000. The average price over the past 15 years for a single fish at the first Tokyo auction of the year was US$153,000, according to Bloomberg, although what comes in the StarKist can is obviously a lot lower-grade.

Conservationists warned in mid-2011 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. In the early days of the Philippine industry, tuna were 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 day, three weeks in the open seas off Sarangani Bay will net a zero catch.

Although Filipino tuna fishermen say the ban in the area of the migratory path is costing them their livelihoods, Marfenio Tan, the former president of the Socsksargen Federation of Fishing and Allied Industry in General Santos City, said he favors a longer ban or even a total one on fishing in the two pockets, rather than a mere lifting of the ban, however, in an effort to allow the rapidly declining species to replenish their stocks.

Tan is supported by an American yellowfin tuna trader, John Heitz. The two are calling for a moratorium on net and purse seine fishing as well as a moratorium on tuna fishing during spawning season or reducing vessel fishing days.

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, including General Santos City Councilor Ronnel Rivera, argue that the ban has had a direct 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.

“We cannot compete with the super seiners of countries like the US, Japan, Spain and others anyway,” Marfenio Tan said. Most Philippine fishing vessels are capable of catching up to 50 tons of tuna-like specie, mostly used as raw materials for canning. Tan said there were 38 Philippine fishing vessels operating in these areas prior to the two-year ban that took effect starting in 2010.

The two-year ban cut total tuna landings at the General Santos City fishing port complex by 21 percent between 2010 and 2011. But the volume of landings of mature yellowfin tuna has been declining steadily in any case from overfishing -- from 33,369 metric tons in 2007 to a mere 9,061.13 in 2011. Today more than 90 percent of raw materials for the city’s six canning plants have been sourced from either abroad or from Manila.

Tan, during a recent game fishing expedition, said continuing the ban would allow uninterrupted migratory flow of the tuna species whose spawning grounds are believed to be in the Sulu and North Sulawesi (formerly Celebes Sea) seas. Over the last five years, tuna industry players in the country have come to terms that unless serious conservation measures are instituted, the catch will continue to decline.

The ban, however, has compounded the increasing protectionist policies from nearby Indonesia, the traditional fishing grounds of Filipino tuna catchers, and the island countries of Papua New Guinea and Palau. Also adding to the reduced volume of catches and landing is the high fuel costs which left many small tuna catching vessels grounded.

Immediately after the ban was announced, local tuna producers were forced to recall their fishing fleets. Tan said, in order for the local tuna industry to be sustainable, the number of Philippine tuna fishing vessels should be reduced to not more than 50. The Socsksargen Federation of Fishing and Allied Industry alone listed at least 160 fishing vessels in the area at the time of the ban.

“The government should set aside a budget for the decommissioning of some fishing vessels to caution the impact of reduced fishing vessels as well as drastic cut in industry employment as a result of such move,” Tan said. He estimates that the government needs at least P1.2 billion (US$27.7 million) to address this measure.

“Anything that will help the local tuna industry become more sustainable,” said Tan, who three years ago sold his two fleets of super seiners because of increased production costs. A single medium-sized tuna fishing fleet consisting of mother boat, service and other auxiliary vessels including a set of 30 to 60 fish aggregating devices could cost up to P30 million (US$700,000).

With the Philippine seas south of Mindanao already over fished, local tuna producers have looked beyond the country’s fishing grounds for their operations. In the 1990s, local tuna producers began opening up fishing 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.

As local tuna production began to decline, pressures from Filipino companies operating fishing grounds in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea for raw materials increased. For a while, the industry sustained the six canning plants in the city which still operated 24/7. But since 2008, canning plants have cut production hours by a third, from three production shifts to just two and sometimes just once a day.

The declining catch had little impact on Filipino exporters of canned tuna who were able to set up plants in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. As early as two decades ago, industry players have seen a steady decline of domestic catch due to over fishing and over saturation of commercial fishing operations in Philippine seas.

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 are still 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 February, it was US$48.

Despite the pall of gloom in the horizon, producers and fishermen are not counting out the Philippine tuna industry although Marfenio Tan says it definitely had already seen its better days. Many who relied solely on tuna fishing went bankrupt when the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit the region, mostly fishing companies which obtained loans, some of them dollar denominated, to expand or to invest first time in the industry.

But for some, the crisis was also a time for windfall profits as exporters enjoyed the bonanza of the decline in the Philippine peso foreign exchange market. Tan said of the 10 or so families who pioneered the industry in the late 60s and early 70s, only three are left.

During the stretch when the industry became the single top dollar earner commodity for Mindanao, several companies have also emerged, especially in the late 80s and early 90s. But the industry is going full circle again following the 2008 global collapse of several financial institutions and renewed oil price crisis.

Tan, now ‘retired’ president of San Andres Fishing Industries, became big enough to be able to diversify long before the double whammy of crises hit the industry in the last two decades. He said the crisis has affected his production but his other business interests outside the fishing industry insulated him.

Today Tan, along with the Riveras of the RD Fishing Group, is still one of the city’s biggest tuna producers as well as among the biggest businessmen in town. But he still yearns for what once were the glory days of the industry.

(Edwin Espejo blogs at Chronicles from Mindanao for Asian Correspondent, where portions of this originally appeared as a three-part series.)