Population outgrowing fish catch in Philippines

Posted: 29 February 2008

Author: Henrylito D. Tacio

The Philippines, with one of the highest population growth rates in the whole of Asia, is likely to face a dramatic fall in the supply of locally produced fish in the next few years.

Currently, the Philippines is home to almost 90 million people with an average annual rate of population growth of 2.75 per cent over the past century. [Now around 2 per cent, according to UN estimates]. "About 62 per cent of the population lives in the coastal zone," says the Philippine Environment Monitor published by the World Bank.

Fishermen, Mindoro Island, Philippines©  Julio Etchart/Reportage/Still Pictures
Fishermen, Mindoro Island, Philippines© Julio Etchart/Reportage/Still Pictures
Fishermen, Mindoro Island, Philippines© Julio Etchart/Reportage/Still Pictures
Estimates show that if the present rapid population growth and declining trend in fish production continue, only 10 kilogrammes of fish will be available per Filipino per year by 2010, as opposed to 28.5 kilogrammes per year in 2003.

"Without any change in fish consumption and no active human population management programme," the World Bank report warned, "domestic demand for fish will reach 3.2 billion kilogrammes by 2020, given the projected population growth rate of the country."

If increased demand is met solely by marine capture fisheries, such increased pressure on the fisheries sector could lead to an eventual collapse of fisheries and the fishing industry, which employs more than one million people (about 5 per cent of the national labour force).

"All fisheries are showing decline in total catch and per unit effort (total number of fish caught per unit of time) despite increasing effort," the World Bank report noted. "Fish are harvested at a level 30 to 50 per cent higher than the natural production capacity."

Production surge

The Philippines is among the largest fish producers in the world. The commercial, municipal, and aquaculture fisheries account for 36, 30, and 24 per cent of the total fisheries yield, respectively. Its annual total fisheries yield is estimated to be worth around US$70- UD$110 billion (equivalent to about 2-4 per cent of the country's gross domestic production over the years).

And it seems that long-term supply trends are masked by some recent short term figures. A new report from the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS) says that the total volume of fisheries production increased by 9.67 per cent during the third quarter of 2007 over the same quarter in 2006.

"All the sectors managed to outdo their third quarter production performance," reports BAS, a line agency of the Department of Agriculture. "The commercial fisheries which served as the major source of growth exhibited a 10.35 per cent increase."

Denuded mangroves, The Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Denuded mangroves, The Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Denuded mangroves, The Philippines.© Henrylito Tacio
Output of the municipal fisheries surged by 10.46 per cent, and aquaculture production increased by 83.5 per cent during the third quarter of 2007 compared to the same period in 2006.

"We still have enough fish now, but with global warming we may have problems in the next five to ten years unless we do something about it," warns Dr Rafael D. Guerrero, executive director of the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development (PCAMRD).

This has been confirmed by a recent UN report. "At least three quarters of the globe's key fishing grounds may become seriously impacted by changes in circulation as a result of the ocean's natural pumping systems fading and falling," the report said.

The Philippine fisheries would also suffer severely if the country's coral reefs are badly affected by warming seas. According to Christian Nellemann, author of the UN report, more than 50 per cent of the world's coral reefs could die by 2050 because of bleaching caused by higher ocean surface temperatures, based on climate projections by international scientists.

Coral damage caused by boat anchors, Philppines© Ken Bura
Coral damage caused by boat anchors, Philppines© Ken Bura
Coral damage caused by boat anchors, Philppines© Ken Bura
In the Philippines, an estimated 10-15 per cent of the total fisheries come from coral reefs. About 80-90 per cent of the income of small island communities come from fisheries. "Coral reef fish yields range from 20 to 25 metric tons per square kilometre per year for healthy reefs," says Dr. Angel C. Alcala, former environment secretary.

But only four to five per cent of coral reefs are in excellent condition. "Nowhere else in the world are coral reefs abused as much as the reefs in the Philippines," says marine scientist Don McAllister. Apart from bleaching, the reefs face infestation by coral-eating crown of thorns starfish.

There are some signs of hope, with the development of active coastal and marine protected areas and an overall reduction in the rate of decline in coastal mangroves (which are important feeding sites for many commercially important fish species).

Much more, however, will have to be done to slow the rate of populalion growth and protect the country's fisheries, if this vital source of protein and culinary delight is to remain on the local dinner plate.

Henrylito Tacio is People & the Planet contributing editor in South East Asia.