By ROBERT GREGORY ELARDO and AIRA MARIE E. SIGUENZA
Manila — “The right to fish is now a privilege for local fishermen.”
This is what Fernando “Ka Pando” Hicap, chairperson of Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA-Pilipinas), told Bulatlat in an interview.
Pamalakaya-Pilipinas is a national federation of small fisherfolk organizations founded in 1987 that aims to unite Filipino fishers towards a genuine fisheries reform.
The group held a protest action in front of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) office recently, to condemn the Fisheries Law (Republic Act 10654) in the wake of the recent nabbing of Binangonan fishermen for “unauthorized fishing” in Taguig. The Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) fined them P2,500 ($49.63) and confiscated the fish they caught because they have no proper permit from MARINA.
This is just one of the unjust cases experienced by Filipino fishers under the law. Their situation is bound to worsen with the proposed amendments to the Fisheries Code.
RA 10654’s intensifies unjust policies vs small fishers
Republic Act 10654, authored by Senator Cynthia Villar, amended the Fisheries Code, setting higher penalties and stricter rules in order to “prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported, and unregulated” fishing in the country.
The amendment was a quick fix to the yellow card issued by the European Union (EU) to the Philippines last 2014 because of “illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing” in the country. The EU gave the country six months to check if the warning would be lifted or a “red card” would be issued. When this happens, there will be a total ban on the exportation of fish from the Philippines which equates to billions of pesos in losses.
Under this law, local fishermen need to register themselves, along with their boats every year. Hicap said that the registration process is very arbitrary and costly since it requires lots of papers, identification cards, certificates, and serial numbers.
“It is a clear manifestation of a violation of the constitutional rights of the Filipino fisherfolk since they cannot immediately fish in the country’s waters. Their livelihood becomes a privilege now,” said Hicap.
Under Chapter IV, Section 86 of the amendment, these are the following fines to be given to those who will be caught fishing without license or permit:
• P50,000 to P100,000 ($970 to $ 1,940) for small-scale commercial fishing;
• P150,000 to P500,000 ($2,900 to $9,700) for medium-scale commercial fishing; and,
• P1 million to P5 million ($19,440 to $97,000) large-scale commercial fishing.
Fishermen also need to report their fish catch and spoilage, landing points, and quantity and value of fish caught and off-loaded for transshipment, sale, and/or other disposals to the office of BFAR since they will be fined P5,000 ($99.16) to P50,000 ($991.63) or compelled to do community service if they cannot pay the penalty fee.
“This is a clear extortion for the small fishermen since traveling to BFAR requires additional expenses so the fishermen need to pay more than what they earn,” Hicap added.
Additionally, the law imposes a yearly fishing ban in order to prevent the shortage of fish. However, Hicap attested that this is feigned since the administration is using this to strengthen their import-dependent and export-oriented policies where they bring in imported fish to the country that further afflicts the local fishermen.
“PAMALAKAYA is not totally against the fishing ban, however, it shouldn’t pave way for the booming importation. Before implementing this policy, the government should be equipped. There should be enough sustenance for the fishermen. The administration should support the production of small fishermen instead of using the Filipinos’ money to buy imported fish,” said Hicap.
In the latest data of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), poverty incidence among fisherfolks are pegged at 26.2 percent. This is a slight improvement from 2015, where 36.9 percent of fisherfolks nationwide were classified as poor.
The group attributed this to the shotgun legislations of the different administrations like Republic Act 8550, exacerbating the problems of local fishermen instead of helping them.
“The Fisheries Code of 1998, from the very beginning, is a shotgun piece of legislation. It is designed to make our fisherfolk poorer thus, the poorest sector in the country is still the fisherfolk sector and poverty is very much extreme in fishing villages all over the country,” said Pamalakaya Vice Chairperson Salvador France in a statement.
Philippine Fisheries Code throughout the years
There have been several laws and codes implemented in order to sustain the aquatic resources of the Philippines and protect the Filipino fisherfolk. However, these legislations are also oppressive for them.
The Presidential Decree on Fisheries 1975 (PD No. 704) paved the way for the establishment of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), which is responsible for the development, improvement, management, and conservation of the country’s fisheries and aquatic resources. This law also imposed regulations for marine and inland fisheries such as fish pond leases and the exportation and importation of fish in the country.
Several sections of the decree have been amended through PD No. 1015, allowing commercial fishing boats to operate in Philippine waters within seven or more fathoms deep. However, the decree also stipulates that the President may ban this operation within a distance of seven kilometers from the shoreline if there is a threat to the marine resources or if the public interest requires so. This decree paved way for foreign investors to use our marine resources for the sake of “global competitiveness” leaving local fishermen with their exclusive use of the waters within seven kilometers from the shoreline.
The Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 (RA 8550) devolves jurisdiction of the waters to the local governments. And because of organized movements by fishermen federations and other sectors, the seven-kilometer fishing area exclusive for the Filipinos was expanded by the Code to a 15-kilometer limit of the municipal waters.
However, this law is also biased towards foreign and big commercial fishers as past administrations allocated P250 million ($5.55 million) for commercial fishing vessels development and P50 million minimum ($1.11 million) allocation for aquaculture investment.
It also intensified the dangerous Fishpond Lease Agreement, which allows individuals or groups to lease and occupy fishing waters.
“This agreement gives anyone the power to lease and occupy fish ponds for 25 years. After their bi-annual harvest, they use pesticides to kill the fishes and other species living in the ponds. Its harmful effect on the environment permeates outside the ponds, particularly during high and low tides, which causes pollution,” Hicap said.
Hicap also denounced the code for it disregards the 15-km exclusive fishing area for Filipinos as it still allows commercial fishing vessels to operate within 10 to 21 kilometers, leaving little to no opportunities for small fishermen.
In 2015, the 1998 Fisheries Code was amended with more repressive provisions that severely affect local fishermen, particularly during a crisis.
The policy-makers attributed the strict implementation of the fisheries code to overfishing by small-scale fisherfolks, however, Hicap said that “overfishing happens in commercial fishing. You will not see overfishing in municipal fishers. The way they fish and the tools municipal fishers use are sustainable because of it being small-scale.”
He added that small-scale fisherfolks are already happy even if they catch just 10 kilos worth, narrating that a one-night operation of commercial fishing vessels is equivalent to a month’s worth of nightly fishing by small-scale fishing vessels.