While groups of local fishermen, traders, and aquaculture players already expressed what they think about the government’s decision to approve the importation of 60,000 metric tons (MT) and how they think this may not necessarily bring down fish prices, Ateneo Professor Karlo Fermin Adriano has something else to say – how about the country liberalizes fish importation instead?
In a briefing hosted by Fisheries and Aquaculture Board of the Philippines (FAB), Adriano concluded that the answer to high fish prices in the Philippines is basically the liberalization of importation, adding “let the market decide” when to import “just like in the Rice Tariffication Law”. The Rice Tariffication Law is the policy that paved the way for unlimited rice importation in the Philippines.
The problem, according to Adriano, is that the country’s fish inflation has been rising consistently from 2017 to 2020, and the trend actually continues to date. In August, fish inflation alone surged by 12.4 percent.
“It is really one of the drivers in food prices,” Adriano told reporters. “The reason for rising prices is the declining catch per unit of effort, which can be measured as tons, including labor and vessels. From 1960, it has really been declining, which shows signs of overfishing”.
Unfortunately, he said that it’s the poorest of the poor who suffers the most because of this, given that their food expenditure accounts for 60 percent of their budget.
“With rising prices of meat due to ASF [African Swine Fever], fish as the main source of protein for poor households is now even more important,” Adriano said. “High fish price is a major issue given rising hunger and higher unemployment rate”.
Citing government data, Adriano showed how the country has significant deficiency in fish catch. For galunggong alone, he said the country has an annual deficiency of 436,560 MT, while it is 200,090 MT per year for tilapia. For milkfish, the country faces an annual shortage of 227,910 MT.
Given his earlier points, Adriano then supported the need for importation. The problem, he said, is that the volume of 60,000 MT the government approved is not enough and that there is a need to ensure that there are more players who are allowed to import fish.
As a start, Adriano thinks that from October to March of next year, the government should allow the entry of as much as 200,000 MT of fish, and then another 100,000 MT during the fourth quarter of next year.
To recall, through the Fisheries Administrative Order (FAO) 259, which was issued in 2018, the Philippine government can issue Certificates of Necessity to Import (CNI) for fish.
Adriano’s issue about FAO 259 is that the sole rights to import are given only to commercial fishing operators and fish traders in Navotas. He said that as of 2020, only 22 importers are allowed to import under FAO 259 as opposed to the 400 to 500 importers that are allowed to bring in cheap pork into the country.
“Limited number of players in importation stifles competition,” Adriano said. “Amend CNI to allow more importation”.
Adriano’s perspective is in contrast with the views earlier raised by other industry groups in fisheries. For instance, Norberto Chingcuanco, co-convenor at food security advocacy group Tugon Kabuhayan and the vice president for planning of Feedmix Group, said the fish volume of 60,000 MT for importation is too much and that there isn’t reliable data that supports the government’s claims that the country lacks that much fish.
Chingcuanco said that the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) data, for instance, only take into account the fish that reached the ports, not the actual fish catch that was sold in other market channels and the volume that is being raised in fish ponds.
Adriano, for his part, said the PSA data is the official and only available data so far that could serve as a basis for policy decisions like food importation. And that unless industry players and the government can present another set of data, it is the only data that he will be using to come up with his recommendations.