Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — May 31 is celebrated as National Fisherfolks’ Day in the Philippines. Considered one of the poorest sectors in the country, fishers have become one of the unlikely heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing food on our tables during the prolonged community quarantine.
In an airy cottage beside their fishing cooperative’s lapu-lapu fishponds in Kabasalan, Zamboanga Sibugay, community leader Robert “Ka Dodoy” Ballon delivers a message of hope to fellow fishers amid the COVID-19 health emergency that has gripped the country since March.
“Nandito ako ngayon sa gitna ng dagat, nagbabantay ng mga mangroves at aming livelihood tulad ng talaba, aquaculture at ating mga fishing grounds,” says Ballon, who heads the Coalition of Municipal Fisherfolk’s Association (COMFAS) in Zamboanga Sibugay, a federation of hundreds of fishers from 13 coastal municipalities in the province.
With the pandemic showing no signs of easing in the months ahead, he advised fellow fishers to continue fishing in coastal areas and protecting their marine sanctuaries to ensure a stable supply of seafood for the wider population.
Ballon’s video message was posted on the Facebook page of Rare Philippines, a conservation NGO that promotes responsible fishing behavior inside municipal waters. His appeal came at a challenging time for the country’s 1.8 million small-scale fishers, with prices going down due to the economic downturn and more people going into fishing after losing their jobs.
In a rapid survey of local government partners across the country, many fishing communities reported that they were struggling with supply chain and marketing problems. In the island town of Looc in Mindoro Occidental, the price of squid fell from ₱100 to ₱50 per kilo when boat transport to the principal market in Batangas was restricted. Ballon also shares in a follow-up interview how fishers had to lower the price of some seafoods down to almost 50 percent: live lapu-lapu, formerly priced at ₱500, is now sold at ₱250 or ₱300, while crabs that used to sell at ₱1200 is now down to ₱700. Some items, however, continue to sell well, such as the oysters, which Ballon explains is mainly for the local market, and dried fish and fermented shellfish as these have always been priced at a relatively more affordable rate.
“While they’re allowed to fish because they’re considered essential workers, the fishers are having trouble selling their goods or getting them to market, or getting the same kinds of prices they used to get pre-quarantine,” says Rocky Sanchez Tirona, vice president of Rare Philippines.
In some coastal areas, law enforcers observed an increase in illegal fishing activities and incursion inside fish sanctuaries, where gathering of marine life is not allowed. Fisheries technician Nicole Dulguime says that in the Municipality of Dapa in Surigao del Norte, tricycle drivers and day laborers resorted to fishing due to limited mobility, competing with registered fishers. In the neighboring town of Pilar, high-value species such as tuna and sailfish had to be sold at lower prices when tourist resorts closed and stopped buying the fishers’ catch.
“Ang mga tawo diri, mga katunga sa ilang kita gikan sa fishpond. Niubos ang mga income gikan sa ₱12,000 kada bulan sa una, karon mga ₱6000 na lang kay sarado man ang mga restaurant,” (About half of the fishers’ income here come from their fishponds. Their income went down from an average of ₱12,000 per month to about ₱6,000 because the restaurants are closed.) shares Ballon, adding that fishers are forced to sell their products through Facebook as a result.
Nationwide, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) reported that the most common illegal fishing violation is the use of the modified Danish seine, which is banned in Philippine waters. Others use fine mesh nets or gather prohibited species in municipal fishing grounds.
The Department of Agriculture has successfully lobbied for the recognition of farmers and fishers as “food security frontliners,” and helped ease marketing difficulties through rolling stores, where fresh seafood and farm products are sold.
“One good thing that has happened is that communities are seeing how important fishers are to food security and in keeping people’s basic needs met,” says Tirona.
With the easing of quarantine restrictions, government officials are looking for ways to address the livelihood concerns of coastal fishers. For a start, BFAR is boosting Fish-R, its database of registered municipal fishers. During the quarantine, coastal municipalities that had an updated registry of fishers found it useful in validating the identity of beneficiaries for government assistance.
Ballon, however, shares that this assistance rarely reaches remote barangays such as theirs. “Ang ayuda gikan sa gobyerno mga bugas lang pero dili kaabot diri sa mga sulod nga barangay,” (Assistance from the government is mostly rice but they don't reach us in the remote barangays.) he says.
Fishing communities that organized savings clubs realized the value of financial resilience when the COVID-19 crisis hit their households. Many have used social funds to buy rice and other needs for their communities. In Lubang, savings clubs even donated food to their health frontliners. Ballon also shares that his association, COMFAS, helps members by consolidating their fish catch and products, and bringing them to buyers in other municipalities on a rotating schedule.
Local officials have urged the national government to provide supplemental livelihood such as cash-for-work programs for activities like mangrove planting and honorarium for fishers that help enforce fisheries laws, especially in fish sanctuaries.
To ease supply chain issues, some local governments have been buying the fish catch and including them in food relief packages. There are suggestions to add ice production and cold storage facilities in the community fish landing centers donated by BFAR to coastal municipalities, following reports that fishers had difficulties in securing ice to preserve their fish catch.
“Unta mutabang ang gobyerno sa transport kay mao gyud na ang kinahanglan namo,” (We hope the government provides transport assistance for our products because that’s what we really need) says Ballon.
Meanwhile, he urged fellow fishers, through his video message, to consult their local governments on what they can do as the community quarantine gets extended in many areas: “Tayong mga mangingisda, tulungan natin ang gobyerno upang hindi sila mahirapan na pairalin ang batas.”