By JOEAL CALUPITAN and PATRICK WHITTLE
TANAUAN, Leyte, Philippines (AP) – The Philippines, a nation made up of thousands of islands, is home to an estimated 1.6 million people who work in fishing, and the majority of those fishermen are small-scale fishers who collectively catch nearly half of the nation’s fish.
Years of market pressures, lack of fisheries management and uncontrolled overfishing by large commercial fishermen have led to a decline in small fish such as sardines that the country’s rural coastal communities of around 110 million people depend on. Data is not available on the state of many fish stocks, but conservation group Oceana said more than 75% of the country’s fishing grounds are depleted.
The problem of overfishing is particularly damaging to the country’s poorest people, many of whom make a living by fishing, said Ruperto Aleroza, an anti-poverty campaigner who has spent decades harvesting small fish like sardines and scads. circles in the waters around the archipelago. Small fish are important to the diet in parts of the Philippines where other protein sources are unavailable, he said. The fish is used in traditional dishes such as kinilaw, a raw fish dish similar to ceviche.
“We fishermen are the second poorest in our country” behind farmers, Aleroza said.
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The challenge that overfishing poses to people who live off the sea and rely on fish for protein in their diets is experienced around the world. While overfishing is impacting kinilaw in the Philippines, it’s affecting traditional dishes and lifestyles in places like the Bahamas, where scientists and government officials are concerned about commercial conch fishing., a marine snail central to the island nation’s diet and identity, may soon no longer be possible. And in Senegal, overfishing has largely wiped out the white grouperfor a long time the basis of the national dish of thieboudienne.
Aleroza blames years of poor fisheries management and unsustainable fishing practices for taking both a way of life and an essential source of protein away from some of his country’s poorest people.
“It threatens the local food source. We cannot feed our family. And that makes the poverty of artisanal fishers worse,” he said. “Overfishing is worsening the economic depression among us.”
Recently, the country has started to make progress in rebuilding fisheries with spawning closures, said Mudjekeewis Santos, a scientist with the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute of the Philippine Department of Agriculture.
“And the communities are happy that it happened, because their catches have increased,” he said. “The fish don’t care about jurisdiction, and they’re decimated.”
But there’s still a lot of work to do, Santos said.
Non-governmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund are working with the Philippine government to adopt science-based sustainable fishing practices, said Edwina Garchitorena, who leads these efforts for EDF in the country.
The problem goes beyond small fish. The loss of small ocean fish such as anchovies is also devastating for larger fish, which eat the small fish, she said.
Garchitorena and others blamed overharvesting of larger fish species to meet international demand, which she said has increased fishing pressure on smaller fish stocks that live closer to the coast.
“We systematically reduced all types of fish in the ocean,” she said.
Whittle reported from Portland, Maine.