Dwindling tuna catch in Mindanao hits local livelihoods

Captain Eric Inong is very worried - after nearly a month at sea, his men have returned with only enough catch to break even. He is not even sure if they will earn enough to cover the cost of fuel.



In General Santos city on Mindanao Island, southern Philippines, tuna fishing has evolved as a significant industry supporting half a million people, the local government says.



Local fishermen told IRIN the tuna have migrated beyond the reach of Inong's boat - one of thousands of wooden-hulled vessels known as ‘pamariles’.



"We've travelled as far as 300km from our shores, and the great fish is still difficult to find," Inong told IRIN. "We caught fewer than 40 tuna, and we have to share the profits after deducting our expenses."



His 15-man crew looks exhausted as they take turns hauling the fish from the cargo hold. Fish brokers will later dispatch them to traders and buyers who will then clean and ship them to markets around the world.



"I do not know what global warming is, but what I know is that it suddenly rains and the weather changes quickly. When that happens, the tuna swim deep and migrate to other parts, making it difficult for us to chase after them," said Inong, a 36-year-old father of three and third-generation tuna fisherman. His boat, the Lenneth-Jane, is the family lifeline. Anxious to earn more income, he says: "Maybe we will only stay on land for two days before we ship out again while the weather is still on our side."



Just moments later unseasonably heavy rains delayed their plans to put to sea.



Falling exports



Tucked in the mouth of the Sarangani Bay on the southern edge of Mindanao, General Santos used to be a backward fishing port before foreign buyers discovered the high quality and quantity of the tuna catch in the 1970s. A 20-year boom followed, with major canneries and export markets to Europe and the US established.




Photo: Google Maps
A map of the Philippines and surrounding countries highlighting Mindanao island

The tuna industry contributes about 60 percent to the economy of General Santos city, generating employment for nearly 100,000 people. Average daily storage capacity of tuna has topped 750T, and the government, with official development assistance from Japan, in 1999 built a 32ha fish port that is now the Philippines' second largest.



While ships laden with tuna continue to arrive at the port, the catch has been dwindling and the city is beginning to feel the pinch. Tuna canning factories say a drop in orders from the US last year due to the financial crisis had added to the concerns. Industry groups have started looking at other markets.



"I would like to believe this is seasonal, and they will come back to our rich fishing grounds," city mayor Pedro Acharon said. "These are very mobile fish. They are also affected by the weather; if it becomes too hot on the surface they dive to depths that are difficult to reach, and if it is cool they normally surface, but that also means it is difficult to catch them because of storms and heavy rain."



A major factor in the decline in the catch may be depleted stocks.



According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's annual report for 2008, the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report released on 2 March, "Analysis of survey information for some countries in the region [Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam] have shown considerable degradation and overfishing of coastal [tuna] stocks, most dramatically in the Gulf of Thailand and along the east coast of Malaysia."



Acharon said many tuna fishermen have had to chase the fish to boundaries near Indonesia and some had been detained there for illegal fishing. He said the Philippines' tuna production used to rank fourth in the world, averaging 500,000T, or 8 percent of the total annual catch in 2006. As of last year, the Philippines ranked seventh, a marked slowdown.



Bayani Fredeluces, executive director of the Socksargen Federation of Fishing and Allied Industries, and an expert in tuna migration patterns, said the fish were increasingly seeking cooler seas away from the Philippine territorial waters. He said global warning affected ocean currents, and the tuna would naturally follow temperatures that best suited them.



jg/bj/mw