Easing fish importation ‘dangerous’ to the aquaculture sector

Published March 8, 2021, 1:36 PM

by Madelaine B. Miraflor

The aquaculture sector is ready to file a petition opposing more fish importation should the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) will push for its plan to ease import policy on agricultural commodities, especially fisheries products.  

Asis Perez, convenor of food security advocacy group Tugon Kabuhayan, said in a briefing on Monday that NEDA’s proposal is “problematic” and may result in a long-term problem for the country’s aquaculture players, which supplied 53 percent of the country’s total fisheries production in 2020.

“The problem in the country’s fisheries sector is not a question of availability but the issue of logistical system. If that [eased fish importation] happens, remember what it will do to our market and what it will do to our producers. Producers will have more problems and they may eventually stop investing,” Perez, who also serves as former Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) director, said.

Asis Perez, convenor of Tugon Kabuhayan

“We understand if there is a deficit then there’s really a need to import. But now, easing our import restriction is dangerous,” he added.

Jon Juico, president of the Philippine Tilapia Stakeholders Association, agreed with Perez, saying that the move to import more fish in order to bring down the price of food is “counter-productive” and that the main problem in the sector is logistics.

 “What we experienced last 2008 is that there was approved galunggong importation, more than a hundred metric tons of it, and it brought down the prices of tilapia and a lot of fish farmers suffered heavy losses. This could happen again now,” Juico said.

For his part, Renato Bocaya, assistant vice president for sales of  Finfish Hatcheries, Inc., said that a lot of small aquaculture players even “gave up” last year because of an oversupply, which pushed some of them to sell their yield at a loss.  

“Last year, we sought help from the local and national government to dispose our product. It was so hard to sell [due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions]. But in terms of production, there is still room for an increase. There are still a lot of underutilized fish farms,” Juico further said. 

Last month, NEDA brought up the possibility of fast-tracking food importation as well as easing fish importation in order to arrest rising food prices.

This was after the country’s inflation rate rose to 4.7 percent in February 2021, which is higher than the January 2021 inflation rate of 4.2 percent and the highest since the 4.4 percent recorded in January 2019.

Fish prices, to be specific, went up by 5.1 percent year-on-year on average, higher than January’s 3.7 percent.

Perez said that should NEDA pushes for more fish importation, Tugon Kabuhayan will “file a counter-petition”.

He also said that there’s already on-going dialogue between the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the aquaculture industry when it comes to importation.

“Tugon Kabuhayan has a good communication with the DA regarding tariff and non-tariff issues,” Perez said. 

“Our main concern about this is the food safety issue and that is one area that we are really pushing for,” he added, referring to his group’s petition to strengthen the regulation over imported fisheries product, which is even in contrast with NEDA’s proposal.  

No need to amend Fisheries Code

Since Tugon Kabuhayan doesn’t see a potential shortfall in the country’s fisheries production over a short-term period, Perez also believes that there’s no need to amend the country’s Fisheries Code to allow commercial fishing within municipal waters.  

To recall, House Bill 7853 is now being pushed for in Congress to allow commercial fishing in municipal waters.

Perez explained that the ban of commercial fishing in municipal water is a “conservation measure”.

“[House Bill 7853] is not necessary,” Perez said. “There is no deficiency and aquaculture can cover whatever shortfall we will have in the future”.

(Mark Balmores / File photo / MANILA BULLETIN)

“Instead of importation and easing restrictions to protect our seas, let us improve logistics issues,” he further said.

There is now a growing call among fisherfolk groups and local governments to junk House Bill 7853. 

The groups said the municipal waters must be healthy and resilient to the impacts of climate and biodiversity crisis and to the health emergency, so these can continue supporting both municipal and commercial fisheries productivity.

“The plan to amend the Fisheries Code provision is alarming. Our ocean has not even recovered or has not been rehabilitated from overfishing and here they are wanting commercial fishing inside the municipal water. We will not allow it and we will take action to ensure that all our efforts on fisheries management will not be squandered,” said Pablo Rosales, Chairperson of PANGISDA Pilipinas, an alliance of artisanal, small-scale and subsistence fishers and fisherfolk organizations. 

The Fisheries Code of the Philippines, as amended, bans commercial fishing in municipal waters to give artisanal fisherfolks the constitutionally-guaranteed preferential access to marine resources and protect fisheries and the coral reefs, seagrass beds and wetlands like mangroves that provide shelter and serve as reproduction areas for fishes and other marine organisms.

The rampant illegal fishing in municipal waters has contributed to overfishing and impacted the catch of the small-scale fisherfolks who are among the country’s poorest of the poor.

Likewise, local governments in Romblon, Samar, and Surigao del Norte, through resolutions, urged their District Representatives in Congress to junk House Bill 7853.

The League of Municipalities of the Philippines Romblon Chapter President and Romblon Mayor Gerard S. Montojo said 17 local government units in the province signed the resolution.

Their resolution urged the scrapping of the bill, stating that “there is no compelling reason to expand the operations of small and medium commercial fishing vessels to more areas of municipal waters than what is stated as an exception under the law”.

“Increasing national catch by commercial fishing vessels would result in inequity of benefit distribution accruing to municipal and small-scale fishers, contributing to increasing poverty,” the resolution further reads.