The Rise and Possible Fall of the Philippines' Tuna Capital

More than 30 years after the accidental discovery of vast tuna resources within a stone’s throw of the shores of Sarangani Bay at the bottom tip of the Philippine island of Mindanao, tuna remains the lifeline of General Santos City, the region’s major port.

Tuna – especially the big mature yellowfin variety – has become a major component in the daily lives of residents here and a crucial source of income for the region. The fish has made people rich. Every single resident who has been living here since the 1970s must have a relative or two working in the more than 200 tuna-related companies. As many as 120,000 people are engaged directly or indirectly in the industry.

Marfenio Tan, popularly known as Marfin, saw the local tuna industry evolve and develop from a subsistence municipal fishing to a multimillion dollar global business. He recalls how a big yellowfin tuna catch for the day would only sell for P0.25 per kilogram. (The day before this article was written, the price of sashimi-grade tuna was P360/kg – US$8.63/kg).

Today, the best tuna catches of the day are flown directly to the tables of posh restaurants in Beverly Hills in California or in Tokyo – within 24 hours of landing at the General Santos City fish port complex. However, only a few in the city can honestly say that they have eaten the same quality of sashimi-grade tuna that the ritziest people in Japan and elsewhere in the world gladly empty their pockets for.

It is a troubled industry, however, after rapacious fishing fleets nearly denuded a vast area of the region of tuna. In 2010, more than 306,000 square miles of open seas south of Micronesia and north of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea were closed to fishing 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 including the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace 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. Australia has begun attempting to raise Bluefin in ponds. An 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 bleak implications for General Santos City, which is host to six of the country’s seven tuna canneries. The Philippines is the world’s fourth largest producer of fresh-chilled and canned tuna products. Some fishermen say fishing must be curtailed to allow the fishery to regenerate, while others say fishing must continue because of the threat to livelihoods.

The volume of mature yellowfin landings has been declining steadily in any case. 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 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.

Accidental industry

Marfenio Tan said tuna fishing didn’t blossom into a full-fledged industry until the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was part of its growth and even its discovery. Walking into a local hardware store here in search for spare parts of his converted boat engine, he was asked by its owner-friend what kind of fish they were catching and whether these included tuna.

At first, neither Marfin nor his friend could agree on which tuna they were referring to, as different tuna species have different local names. Quick solution? Show them the real thing. Marfin showed him one frozen yellowfin tuna and a two-kg skipjack. His friend was impressed. Marfin was introduced to a Japanese buyer who immediately dispatched a 300-ton refrigerated ship to the city all the way from Zamboanga. In three weeks, Marfin and his fishermen friends were able to fill the ship – taking much less than the agreed-upon 30-day period to load the ship with tuna.

Word quickly spread with the ship’s arrival in Japan. A week after, Ricsan also moored its refrigerated ship off the waters of what is now the water treatment plant near the General Santos City public market. In less than a month, pineapple giant Del Monte Philippines followed suit by sending its own ship. A month later, General Santos City-based Dole Phils Inc. also began buying tuna from local fishermen.

By the early 1980s, two of the country’s tuna-canning plants, Purefoods and RFM, had already established factories here. As they often say, the rest is history. The General Santos Fishing Port Complex, the country’s most modern and a symbol of the industry’s economic importance, was built in 1997 via a grant from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Tuna Capital

The Philippines officially became the world’s second biggest manufacturer of canned tuna products with the addition of four more canneries. As a result of the phenomenal growth of the industry, the Philippines also became the third-largest tuna catchers in the world.

Entering its 14th National Tuna Congress in a row this year, the tuna industry grew almost exclusively by itself with little government support, its growth largely fueled by the dictates of the international markets. Demand grew. So did production. Tuna companies, which grew from just four or five in the early 1970s to more than 200 today, fished in a frenzy until the Celebes and Sulu seas could no longer land them the required volume. Tuna producers looked elsewhere to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Palau for fishing grounds.

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 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.

(With reporting by Edwin Espejo who blogs for Asian Correspondent)