POSTSCRIPT / July 28, 2019 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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Disclose Duterte-Xi fishing deal details

THE TERMS of the fishing deal that President Duterte claimed to have sealed with China President Xi Jinping should be disclosed in full and discussed — if only to allay fears that Philippine maritime resources have been sold down the Yangtze River.

That deal impacts on food security, yet the President has shared only these bare details: The contract is verbal (not written out and signed?), based on the two leaders’ being friends, and its main provision broadly being to allow Chinese and Filipinos to fish in each other’s waters.

The usual meal of the Filipino masses is often described as “rice and fish.” Yet there is the painful paradox of this traditionally agricultural country surrounded by bountiful seas and dotted by inland waters still importing vast volumes of rice and fishery products.

The mean per capita consumption of fish and fishery products of Filipinos is 40 kg/year or 109 grams/day. They could have eaten pork or beef instead of fish, but meat is often in short supply and too expensive for those whose minimum daily wage is a meager P466-P537.

Lately these are the per-kilo prices in the neighborhood palengke of bangus (P170-P180), tilapia (P120), liempo (P220) and beef (P360). “Isdang dagat” varieties in the wet markets are getting smaller, as a result of overfishing and the wanton destruction of their breeding areas.

Philippine Statistics Authority data show a steady decline in fisheries production since 2015. The commercial fisheries harvest in metric tons was 1,084,624.70 (in 2015), 1,016,948.05 (2016), and 948,281.45 (2017). Municipal fisheries harvest has also been going down: 1,011,792.73 MT (in 2015), 976,941.19 (2016), and 962,146.84 (2017).

Our seas have been yielding less and less fish — yet the President, based on friendship, unilaterally threw open our marine waters to China despite its grabbing and militarizing key features in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and hinting of hostilities if Duterte objected.

Such bullying has been so blatant that even outsiders, such as the United States, have warned against this aggressive behavior of Beijing against its neighbors. And one victim, the Philippines, is too scared or compromised to complain.

The Philippines exports some 4.8 percent (in terms of value) of its fishery products to China, but 24 percent of its fishery imports come from China, the No. 1 source. Who knows if much of the “Chinese” fish sold in the Philippines was caught in Philippine waters?

The fishing deal that Duterte has forged with his friend Xi may have merely formalized what has been going on – Chinese poachers casting their nets in Philippine waters while local authorities and fishermen watched helplessly.

Instead of intruders being driven away, or punished as Indonesia does by having their boats blasted, Chinese poachers have been given presidential license to come and go freely – as if our waters are overflowing with fish beyond the needs of Filipinos.

 Sorry state of Phl marine fisheries

NATIVE fishermen are already competing with one another because of dwindling stock in the traditional grounds and inadequate government assistance. Instead of going to the open sea as big operators should, some of them fish closer to the shore to the prejudice of smaller fishermen.

Capture fisheries (as differentiated from aquaculture) is divided into commercial, municipal, and inland fisheries.

Commercial fisheries involve vessels of over 3.1 gross tons, while municipal fisheries which is traditional, artisanal, or subsistence, use vessels of up to 3 GT. Commercial fishing is further classified into: small scale using vessels of 3.1-20 GT; medium scale using vessels of 20.1-150 GT; and large scale with vessels of more than 150 GT.

By law, commercial fishing vessels are required to fish outside municipal waters, beyond 15 kilometers off the shoreline. They must secure a commercial fishing vessel license (CFVL) from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources renewable every three years.

The fishing boat Gem-Ver that was rammed and sunk by a Chinese vessel last June 9 at Recto Bank is rated 14.38 GT. It is one of two boats of the Dela Torre family of San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, bearing the same name (F/B Gem-Ver 1).

We assume that the Duterte-Xi deal involves only commercial fishing. We cannot imagine big Chinese vessels venturing into, say, Laguna de Bay (our largest freshwater lake) or the Pansipit River in Batangas. That is “small-time” for them, but until the terms are made public we do not know.

The entry of bigger and better equipped Chinese boats, while restrictions and other terms are not clearly defined, adds to the woes of commercial Filipino operators. The pressure is passed down to the smaller fishermen struggling in municipal waters.

These distressing data about Philippine fisheries — and the larger food security question — must be addressed before throwing open already overfished waters (and breeding grounds raped barren) to China’s fishing fleets combing the world’s waters to feed its burgeoning population.

Among the important elements of bilateral agreements are fairness and reciprocity. Has Duterte seen to it that Filipino fishermen are not overwhelmed by bigger, more numerous, and better equipped Chinese operators?

How can Gem-Ver type wooden boats or the puny Piñol fiberglass bancas given to its crew sail thousands of kilometers across the South China Sea to fish in waters off the mainland, assuming these far-away areas have indeed been opened to Filipinos?

What are the harvesting limits and the protocol for the catch being inspected and taxed? Who makes sure that the foreign fishers stick to the agreed terms, and respect laws on illegal capture practices and conservation?

President Duterte must disclose the fishing deal’s terms and consult all stakeholders guided by the interest of Filipinos rather than of foreigners whose “friendship” has failed the test when they built those military outposts in Philippine maritime areas.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 28, 2019)

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