Threat to Philippines Tuna Industry

With their catch dwindling and faced with ever-rising cost of production, tuna producers in the Philippines’ General Santos City say they are confronted with more than they can handle because of a June edict by Indonesia that bans virtually all Philippine fishing vessels and Filipino fishermen from catching tuna in Indonesian waters and shipping them out to Mindanao.

The action by the Indonesians is a significant blow to one of the region’s most important industries. General Santos is host to six of the Philippines’ seven tuna canneries and more than 20,000 people are directly employed by the industry, excluding other workers employed by ancillary services. General Santos City Mayor Darlene Antonino Custodio said the recent move by the Indonesian government is a big concern for the local government and will be a major agenda item in the 12-nationh National Tuna Congress slated later in the month.

The new Indonesian fishing policy stipulates that all foreign companies catching fish in Indonesian waters must maintain “an integrated fishing operation.” Under the new rules which take effect December this year, foreign companies that engage in fishing in Indonesia must also have processing facilities in the said country. Foreign investments in the Indonesian fishing industry are also limited to vessels with gross ship tonnage of over 60 only. Below that, they are prohibited from fishing in Indonesian waters.

The Indonesian government also set a five-year timetable to reduce foreign crew of fishing vessels from 50 percent during the first year to 10 percent in the fifth. By the sixth year, all foreign fishing vessels operating in Indonesia must be manned by Indonesians. Foreign fishing companies are also “mandated to transfer technology” to their Indonesian employees.

Indonesia lies in the middle of the tuna migratory path that stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Sulawesi Sea and ends up near the Philippines’ Sulu Sea. The Philippines and Indonesia share a long stretch of common sea boundaries where Filipino tuna fishers usually stray out. Hundreds of Filipino fishers have been apprehended for fishing illegally in Indonesian waters.

Philippine foreign affairs authorities have already alerted defense officials of the new Indonesian fishing policies and in turn ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines to take notice of the advisory. Indonesia and the Philippines have an existing joint border patrol agreement although this does extend to commercial fishing.

The Philippines was informed of the new regulations during a meeting between consulate officials in Manado and the North Sulawesi office of the Indonesian fisheries ministry. The result of that meeting was only forwarded by the foreign affairs department to the defense department last month, with the local media obtaining copies of the advisory only last week.

The Sulawesi Sea has become a traditional fishing ground for Filipino fishing trawlers over the last few decades after changing weather and climatic conditions coupled with overfishing saw dramatic declines of tuna stocks in Philippine waters. In 2006, the Philippines’ 500,000 metric tons of tuna catch was ranked fourth in world tuna production but dropped to seventh in 2008 as production went down by 22 percent.

Tuna production is one of the top dollar earners of Mindanao with annual export proceeds hovering around US$280 million. What the Philippine tuna industry lost in production over the last few years, however, it was able to offset with rising prices of canned and processed tuna products. Socsksargen Association Fishing Federations and Allied Industries President Marfenio Tan said it is time for the Philippine government to conduct a comprehensive study of tuna biomass in Philippine fishing grounds in order to regulate the number of tuna fish catchers in the country.

He said industry players will also have to bite the bullet and be prepared to downsize their fishing operations in order to sustain the Philippine tuna industry. He acknowledged that overfishing by big tuna producers during the last two decades has contributed to the decline of world tuna stocks.

“We all have to share the blame,” Tan said. “Handline tuna catchers have also been catching mature tuna during spawning season.” But he added that they are validating observations that the tuna migratory path have changed over the years due to increase in ocean and sea temperatures.

(Edwin Espejo blogs at Chronicles from Mindanao for Asian Correspondent, with which Asia Sentienl has a content-sharing agreement)